A lot of military gear is one size fits all, both literally and figuratively. It doesn’t matter if your job is to be in an operations center interpreting intelligence, to fly a helicopter, or to drive a tank, soldiers are likely issued the same gear when joining their unit regardless of what their job is. They were issued the same boots, the same helmet, and the same rucksack. Logistically, it is more efficient to give different soldiers the same equipment. However, there are jobs in the military where every ounce counts against the user and the fit and finish of a product can mean a world of difference. One of those jobs is a mountaineer.
A military mountaineering pack must be rugged, versatile, and comfortable. The current US Army standard issue rucksack is rugged and somewhat versatile in the fact that it has a large carrying capacity of 5000 cubic inches. However, it is wide and does not scale down well which reduces its versatility. It isn’t uncomfortable, but it weighs 8lbs 6oz. Since the civilian markets outpace the military we can find a similar civilian activity that involves walking long distances in rugged terrain: hunting.
The Exo Mountain Gear K3 4800 matched the criteria we were looking for, which was a pack with similar carrying capacity to the US Army rucksack, has zipper access, and comes in multicam which is an approved military color. For reference, similar packs included the Mystery Ranch Beartooth, Kuiu Pro 6000, Kifaru Reckoning. So is the K3 up to the task of improving on a one size fits all standard issue pack?
One of the most important aspects of a large capacity pack is how comfortable it is to carry. At 5lbs 6oz for 5205 cubic inches of capacity (including the lid) is relatively lightweight compared to the similar packs mentioned above. The hip belt is 2 inches wide with enough padding to be comfortable without feeling bulky or excessive. Something else that adds to the comfort of the pack is its shape. Wide packs can increase the strain on back muscles because the weight is farther away from the spine. Wider packs can also limit your movement in thick vegetation or tight rock formations. The K3 is tall and slim so it keeps the weight close to your spine and prevents leverage from causing unnecessary strain on the back muscles.
Another impressive aspect of this pack is its scalability, which is a function of its design. To be scaled down the lid can be removed and the roll top can be rolled down all the way and clipped downward to the front of the pack. This is the bag in its 4800 cubic inch configuration. The bag can be compressed even more with the side straps and can scale the pack down to effectively a day pack.
To scale the bag up, the roll top can be unrolled and clipped to itself and the lid is easily reattached. The full length side pockets can be opened and used to increase storage on both sides of the pack. This is useful for light items or items you need in a hurry such as a poncho or tripod.
Finally, the load shelf feature can be used to store things between the frame and the pack, which also increases the capacity of the pack.
The aspect that sets this pack apart from similar packs is its accessibility. Zipper access to the main compartment of bags is something that is becoming essential to larger packs. It allows the user to get access to the bottom layers of the bag without having to dump everything out. A single full-length zipper is an easy solution. However, if the pack is filled to the top once the zipper is opened the bag loses its shape and it may take some time to rearrange the contents before closing the pack again. Also, the single opening is not the easiest solution to help you see and access all layers of the pack. Some packs offer a zipper that opens the whole front side of the pack like a duffle bag. This offers more access to the pack, but can also cause a gear explosion if the pack is stuffed. The horseshoe zip access for the K3 is a happy medium. It offers a window of access into the pack without causing the pack to lose its shape when opened. From a climbing or mountaineering standpoint, it allows access to the entire pack without having to move a rope if you have it stored on top of your pack.
The K3 does a good job of providing some separate storage aside from the main compartment and the lid. The horseshoe flap has a full length vertical zipper to access a pocket from the outside of the pack. When the flap is opened, there is an internally assessed pocket at the top of the flap. Together, they give you some separation of small items even if you removed the lid from the pack.
The K3 has a wet storage compartment that can be used to keep your hydration bladder separate from the rest of your gear. This is a good precaution for ensuring that if your hydration bladder leaks or breaks it doesn’t soak the rest of your gear. You can use it to store wet clothes or a poncho to prevent it from getting your gear wet before you have a chance to dry it out.
Mountain mobility is not only about shaving every ounce or making the mountaineer comfortable. There comes a point in cold mountainous terrain when the ground is too steep or icey to navigate using only your feet. Some mobility tools we can use are trekking poles, whippets, crampons, snow shoes, ice axes and ice tools.
Ropes are another tool that is useful but in the winter a rope alone will not increase mobility. Trekking poles and whippets can be easily stored in the side pouches of the K3 and are probably the most applicable for hunters because they are not looking for challenging terrain with technical climbing. However, ice axes and ice tools allow you to access more difficult to reach areas. Adding an easy way to attach an ice axe or two ice tools would increase the versatility of this pack and the mobility of the user.
A lot of thought was put into every aspect of design and every feature the pack is does right. Adding an easy way to hold an ice axe or ice tools would widen this pack’s audience even more. The Exo Mountain Gear K3 4800 is a spectacular pack for people moving a lot of weight through thick woods or the mountains, with the ability to be scaled up or down to cater to your needs.