A better way to carry your binoculars in the field…
A few years back I was living in Western North Carolina and dreaming of the North Woods. One of the things that I looked forward to in returning to Wisconsin was deer hunting. Deer hunting is an unofficial state holiday in Wisconsin. People take their kids out of school. Businesses close down. It’s a cultural thing.
I deer hunted with my father when I was younger, but I got away from it when I went to college. I was more interested in kayaking than hunting, and by the time I started to get interested again a couple decades had passed. I was basically starting from scratch.
I started digging. People who know me know I get a little obsessive. I read books, watched videos, listened to podcasts. Somewhere along the line I ran across Steven Rinella and the Meateater crew.
These guys are great. They represent a kind of new wave of hunting that combines a strong conservation and land ethic with backcountry travel and wilderness adventure. If you listen in to the Meateater podcast you’ll hear interesting discussions on hunting, conservation, ecology and public policy. You’ll feel like you’re sitting around with a bunch of smart, engaged people shooting-the-shit about important topics. After a while its like you know everybody in the room.
The podcast was my introduction to the Meateater world, but I eventually tracked down the TV series on Netflix. Loved it. All the things I appreciated about the podcast plus great visual storytelling.
All this talk about Meateater is a long-winded intro to how I ended up with an Alaska Guide Creations binocular pack.
Before I watched the series, I’d never seen a bino pack. I have a decent pair of binoculars (Vortex Diamondback 10×42) that I bought over a decade ago when I was in grad school. I like having them in the field, but I never could figure out a good way to carry them. On the neck strap they flapped around. In my pack their were out of reach. I had a chest harness for them but that left them exposed to the elements. Dirt, rain. Half the time when I reached for them the lenses were fogged up.
These guys on Meateater were carrying their binoculars around in little packs on their chests. That seemed like a solution.
[I think Rinella wins the prize for best slang word for binoculars. He calls ’em ‘nockers.]
The first place I looked was the Vortex site. There was a basic pack there, but nothing really compelling. I kept digging.
In the end, I found found myself on the Alaska Guide Creations website. Paydirt.
Alaska Guide Creations
Alaska Guide Creations is the bino pack specialist. Their site has five different models, most of which are available with or without an extra bottom pocket and all of which can be ordered in 9 or 10 different camo and color options. There’s a lot to choose from.
I wanted something basic, which might have meant the KISS pack, which carries a pair of 10×42 binoculars and not much else. The more I looked, the more I thought I liked the idea of an extra pocket for a rangefinder. Not that I had a rangefinder. I didn’t at the time. But I might someday. Sometimes we don’t buy what we need. Sometimes we buy what we hope we’ll need.
I narrowed it down to two options. The Hybrid and the Kodiak CUB (Compact Utility Bag). As far as I can tell, the only difference between these two packs are the small pockets on the left and right side of the main compartment. On the Hybrid these are elastic mesh. On the CUB they’re fabric pockets with a zip closure.
I have a Lowe Pro camera bag with some stretch mesh pockets similar to the Hybrid. They work OK for holding lens covers or a remote, but the don’t really add much to the pack. I figured the zip pouches might be more useful, so I went with the CUB.
Aside from the pockets, the similarities between these two packs are such that this review can serve for both packs and will probably get you where you need to be for the KISS as well.
Let’s start with the pack itself.
The CUB is a scaled-down version of the AGC Alaska Classic pack, which holds ‘nockers up to 12×50. The size is different, but the feature set is the same, so these descriptions can double for the Classic if you need something to carry a full size pair of binoculars.
The Kodiak CUB has a large main binocular compartment that is perfectly sized for my Diamondbacks. The compartment is paddled throughout and lined with a soft fleece material. It closes with a generous structured flap. The underside of the flap is lined with a similar fleece material to the inside of the main body of the pack.
The bino compartment cover secures with a metal hook and a bungee with a tab. The tail end of the bungee passes into the font pocket of the pouch where it is secured with a cordlock. This cordlock allows you to adjust the tension on the bungee for a more secure closure.
The front pocket is large enough to accommodate my Vortex Ranger 1500 (I did get a rangefinder after all). It’s a simple zip pocket with a padded fleece lining on the outside. Inside the pocket, the loose tail of the main compartment bungee closure doubles as a simple lanyard for your rangefinder.
Small outside pockets on both sides of the pack are large enough to hold turkey calls, lens cloths, eye drops or a compass. They zip closed with angled zippers. Above each pocket is a piece of webbing that can act as an attachment point for a lanyard.
On top the main compartment are two elastic pockets that hold a cell phone or GPS. The elastic stretches enough to hold a conventional size (big) smart phone, but probably isn’t roomy enough for one of the mega phone/tablets that people are carrying around these days.
Backside of the pack is a padded mesh panel that with a final zip pocket, sized right for license, ID and tags.
The pack attaches to the harness with four side-release buckles sewn to the top and sides of the body of the pack.
Quality of sewing is top notch. I haven’t found any flaws and after a year of use it still looks new. On top of this, it’s sewn in the US, which is always a plus in my book.
On to the harness.
One of the things that really attracted me to the ACG packs was the harness. It’s a broad mesh yoke with a thin layer of open-cell foam paddling. The yoke is breathable and comfortable in hot weather. It spreads the load of the pack across a large area and disappears under a pack harness. There’s no leather or plastic center piece like you’ll often find in binocular harnesses. This means there’s nothing hard between your back and your pack when you’re carrying a full-size trekking or hunting rig. You don’t feel any bunching or pressure points.
Four side-release buckles allow you to adjust the pack to ride higher or lower on your chest. The buckles on the sides of the harness have elastic loops that secure the tails of the straps and help prevent the buckles from slipping in use.
[Newer versions of AGC packs come with self-locking side release buckles for an even more secure fit. These buckles are available as an optional upgrade for older packs.]
The front of the yoke has several webbing straps that allow for attaching accessory pockets or lanyards. It also features a pair of triglides that secure the AGC BTS (Binocular Tether System. We are acronym rich today).
The BTS lanyard is a sort of belt and suspenders keeper strap that makes it impossible to drop your binoculars off a cliff. It attaches to your binoculars where the neck strap normally would. The BTS features a pair of micro side-release buckles that allow you to disconnect the lanyard to pass your binos to a friend.
Rigging the pack
There’s not much to setup with the Kodiak CUB. You’ll want to adjust the length of the BTS lanyards so the binoculars are easy to bring to your eyes. Then double the loose tail of the straps back through the triglide to prevent slippage.
To position the pack, connect the two top pack buckles to the harness and put the yoke over your head. Shorten or lengthen the two top front straps to position the back where you want it to ride on your chest. Once this is done you can pass the tail ends of these straps back behind the buckles so they don’t flop around in the wind. Passing the straps back through the buckles like this also effectively locks them in place so they’re unlikely to slip.
Next, clip the side straps and cinch them snug. Pull the tails of these straps through the elastic keepers to secure them. Once you’re set up, it’s easy to get into and out of the pack by loosening the side straps slightly and undoing a single side buckle.
In the Field
Both Cristi and I have spent a lot of time hiking with the Kodiak CUB. I used it last April during spring turkey season in Wisconsin. Cristi spent much of last summer out west using it to carry our binoculars on backcountry hikes.
We both like the CUB. A lot. The yoke harness does a good job of spreading the weight of the pack across your shoulders. It’s easy to take off and put on when changing layers and doesn’t add any bulk under a hiking or trekking pack.
Cristi and I like to set up the pack harness a little differently, so we usually designate one of us to carry binos. Cristi prefers the pack a little lower on her body. I like it to ride higher on the chest.
The pocket layout of the Kodiak CUB is perfect. In the turkey woods I carried binoculars, rangefinder, mouth calls, phone, lens cloth, license and ID in the pack. There was just enough room for things I wanted close at hand.
One thing that I did notice is that the side straps are more important to proper fit than I initially thought. The harness yoke is most comfortable when it rides down below the nape of your neck. Proper setup means adjusting the straps so the pack stays put where you want it and the yoke doesn’t creep up and cut into the back of your neck. Cinching the side straps helps a lot with this. If the side straps are loose you can expect the pack to slide downward on your chest over time.
I haven’t had a lot of trouble with the side release buckles on the harness loosening with use. That said, the tighter the side straps are, the less likely they are to slip. If they work loose over time they’re easy to snug up. I anticipate the self-locking buckles were introduced to eliminate any slippage that might have been a problem for users. If nothing else, these buckles look pretty slick and they’re not very expensive. I’ll probably order up a set to retrofit our pack sometime this season.
The Kodiak CUB is a great little pack. It has all the features you need, carries a pair of binoculars and accessories securely and comfortably, and is built to last. If I were shopping for a bino pack now I would go right back to the CUB as my top choice. If you need a binocular pack the Kodiak CUB should be on your list.
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