Bonejour reviews Alaska Guide Creations’bino pack

Binocular harnesses and packs continue to evolve into more and more indispensable tools for anyone who is into backcountry and off-trail hiking, fishingorhunting. The most contemporary versions, like the bino packs produced by Alaska Guide Creations (AGC), extend the idea of a light daypack to a whole new level of convenience and utility through a variety of well thought-out and well-executed modifications to their basic chest pack design.

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When I was growing up, hiking and orienteering in the back country of Maine, New Hampshire, the provincial parks of Canada and the Absaroka Range of the Rockies, we used heavy external frame packs for long treks. Each of us also carried a daypack for bringing along extra layers, food, water, first aid gear and other items we might need during a few hours away from camp. We carried ourtopo maps in a waterproof plastic case and hung a compass around our necks or from a shoulder strap on the daypack, and other items we’d want to get at without removing the backpack would be stuffed into our cargo pockets. Binoculars and camera, if we wanted them handy during a hike, went on our belts, in our hands, or they swung from our necks by their straps.

Fanny packs became popular in the 90’s as a scaled-down version of the shoulder pack, designed to carry (a slightly smaller) load on the hips instead of the shoulder. Fanny packs provide better access to their contents without removing the pack. With a quick turn of the belt, you can spin the fanny pack to allow access to the full pack without disconnecting it from your waist. One problem with fanny packs of course is that they really are a replacement for, and not a complement to, shoulder packs. So unless we are talking about a convertible type shoulder/fanny pack, fanny packs and shoulder packs are not compatible for simultaneous use; and even in those limited, convertible exceptions, the over-the shoulder straps prevent bringing the fanny pack around to the front for easy access to all the compartments.

I first became aware of binocular harnesses about the same time as I started to see fanny packs on store shelves, and until recently I was completely unaware that at least one bino harness design has actually been around since the early 1970’s. That was when Jaret Owens, professional guide and owner/innovator of AGC packs, first designed a heavy-duty leather pouch to protect his most valuable asset in the field: his binoculars. Jaret started making bino packs in 1972 for his own personal use, and he produced a small number upon request for a small group of friends. The central theme was and remains a fully padded compartment to keep your glass handy while protecting it from the elements and mechanical shock, and at the same time to prevent it from striking you in the face if you stumble or get jostled on a horse or ATV. The original leather pouch and straps have been replaced by heavy nylon fabric and webbing, but the high-quality stitching, straps and fixtures are still designed for maximum durability.

Over the past few years, I have watched with interest asbinoharnesses“developed” from simple elastic straps that prevent the binoculars from swinging freely, to full-on packs that securely hold a variety of useful items you need to keep within easy reach while you are standing and walking. Knowing what I know today about Jaret’s early work in this area, it occurs to me that much of the apparent rapid recent growth in designs may really represent knock-offs and tweaks of existing designs that just were not widely marketed. In any event, starting from the time I fabricated my first bino harness from some lengths of shock cord, I’ve now owned a few different designs, and I’ve used them in different hunting and hiking situations. So when the powers that be at SouthernCaliforniaHunting.com awarded me an Alaska Guides Creations bino pack as the “most improved hunter” for the 2014-15 season, I consulted a few minutes with my friend Neil Ray of Giant Sequoia Guide Service, and picked out the largest model available.

Just as a disclaimer, based on my prior experience, I am a fan of the full-on “bino pack” for a variety of reasons. One big reason is that a well-designed pack complements your shoulder pack, so that you can wear them together or separately. I wear mine under the shoulder pack so I can ditch the shoulder pack for a short climb up to a ridgeline, or for greater stealth and mobility while approaching game. Even the largest bino pack doesn’t hold so much that it adds noticeably to the load on your shoulders, and carrying some of your gear in front of your chest actually counterbalances some of the weight in the pack so neck and shoulder fatigue are minimized. Together with the wide mesh straps on all AGC models, there is very little neck strain and none of the chafing you might experience withother strap designs.

The specific pack I chose with Neil’s help is what Jaret calls the “Basement”, which is his Alaska Classic design with an additional zippered pocket under the main compartment. The main compartment is large enough to hold my 12×50 Leupold Mojave binos with nearly an inch of length to spare.

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I can even keep lens cloth and some smaller items in the compartment with the binos without stuffing them in, although if you put loose stuff in there like a ballistics table, it’s a nuisance worrying about those smaller items falling out every time you pull out the binos. I ended up moving everything but the binos out of the compartment so I didn’t have to worry about losing them. I can remove the binos from the pack easily with one hand when I need them; clipping the buckle gives additional security but I really don’t like to bother with that in the field. More on that below.

 

How do I use the additional pockets? I put my chalk bottle in the right side pocket, as shown in the picture, and keep my headlamp in the small half-moon front pocket. My sunblock and lip balm go in the basement. I use the left side pocket for extra cartridges or a second magazine. My rangefinder could fit in the front pocket, but the pocket isn’t padded as the main compartment is, so I prefer to use the case provided by the manufacturer. After some trial and error, I settled on passing the right side strap of the harness through the belt loop on the case. There are elastic sleeves inside that front half-moon pocket that hold extra cartridges, but those four elastic sleeves don’t fit more than 3 large cartridges like magnum or .30-06 rounds. On top is a two-layer elastic strap that conveniently holds aniphone or other large smartphone. Even with a protective case on my iphone, it fits securely in the top pocket. But some larger phones like a Samsung Galaxy won’t fit. In the rear of the back, against your chest, is a flat zippered compartment to hold your license, tags and any other flat items you may want to have handy.

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A couple of points: if you keep any paper items in the rear compartment, put them in a plastic bagor a little folding plastic card folio because the vapor from your sweat will permeate that pocket when you are working hard in the field.

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Also, as described above, the front half-moon pocket is not padded as is the main compartment, so if you keep your rangefinder in there, it could get dinged if you fall. I actually like the small hook-and-bungee pouch that came with my Leupold rangefinder, so I keep it on the side of my bino pack (see picture). You can run the side strap through the belt loop of the rangefinder’s case as shown in the picture, or tack it to the side of the bino harness with some silk thread.

Looking at the pack critically, the front-opening main compartment with the buckle fastener has several downsides to consider: it is not self-closing, and doesn’t prevent the binos from falling out when you bend over. That happened to me twice; once going under a fence, and another time field dressing a kill. To prevent that, I added a shock cord that goes around my neck. Jaret suggested that to me, and he tells me he’ll be adding integrated shock cord in new models, attached to the shoulder straps. The way I do it now though, the shock cords run through the sides of the lid. Note that those openings can allow dirt, debris and dust to enter the main compartment. In fact, dust can enter the compartment even when the buckle is fastened, if conditions are bad enough such as when you are in an open vehicle following another vehicle. This is just a fact of life with hunting in the southwest: dust permeates everything, and I doubt that anything other than a zip-lock seal will prevent dust from getting on your binos if you hunt where I hunt. So I keep the optical and objective lens caps attached to the binos, and just pop them off when using the binos.

The pack’s shoulder and side straps are fully adjustable, but the nylon webbing is a little slippery so they tend to lose their adjustment when you are moving around a lot. To keep the shoulder straps from sliding through and loosening, I knot off the tails through the loops on the shoulder straps as shown in the picture. Still, when I am active, I have to re-adjust the side straps occasionally.

Now, I chose the Basement model because I wanted to go big for extra storage, and I needed the room for my big binos. But the downside is that plastic buckle on the main closure (see pictures), and also that the other pockets are zippered. So it is a little noisy to get in and out of the compartments. It is intended, and better suited, for rifle hunting as opposed to bow hunting, and that is how I’ll use it. For archery hunting, where smaller binos will do and any noise or extra motion could alert an animal that is mere yards from you, the Kodiak, Kodiak Cub or KISS models may be better because their closures are hook-and-bungee.

These packs are all made in the USA, and the materials and stitching are top notch. For more reviews, you can Google search “Alaska Guide Creations bino pack review”. The web site http://www.alaskaguidecreations.com/ is still under development and doesn’t include thorough descriptions of the available packs. But you can also visit their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/alaskaguidecreations or contact Jaret directly through the AGC home page to identify the pack you are interested in, or to ask any questions you may have.

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