By Luke Moffat
When I first began hearing about the Mystery Ranch NICE packs, I was intrigued at their versatility. With the NICE system from Mystery Ranch you have one frame that can accommodate a day pack, a meat hauler and a multi-day hunting pack. This seemed like a very space and budget conscious way to go for a high end backpack that fills many niches.
Nearly 3 years ago, I ordered the Mystery Ranch NICE 6500. Since that time, I have hiked a couple hundred miles and have been on four mountain goat hunts, a Dall sheep hunt, and several caribou hunts using this pack. I also later ordered the NICE Longbow and Load Sling packs to be reviewed later in a separate article.
Pack specs provided by Mystery Ranch's website:
-Weight: 9.5 pounds
-Volume: 6500 cu in
-Price : $625 (for the standard frame with the NICE 6500 packbag)
Here are my thoughts on the features of this pack:
-Speed zip sleeping bag compartment. For me, while it is an interesting concept, I can think of no instance were I need to quickly load or unload my sleeping bag or why this feature speeds up the process in the first place.
-Daypack lid. This lid actually is removable into a fully functional backpack with two padded straps. However, at 17 oz just for the lid, I personally feel that if Mystery Ranch would offer a simpler, detachable lid instead, the overall weight of the NICE 6500 setup could be decreased to less than 9 pounds. While it may not sound like much cutting a half pound off the pack weight, in an industry ruled by weights and dimensions, I feel it couldn't hurt.
Also, the daypack lid is large enough to accept a 3 liter hydration water bladder and has a port to route the hose out. This is a feature I prefer, as I like the ease of access. If the bladder is inside the main compartment and your backpack is packed full, retrieving your hydration bladder for a fill up at a creek can entail having to unpack your gear, pull out the bladder, fill your bladder, replace the bladder in the pack, and finally repack your gear in your backpack. With the bladder being in the designated daypack lid pocket, all I have to do is unzip the pocket and remove it while my pack is still stuffed full.
-Vertical Long Pockets. I am a big fan of having some external pockets on a large backpack to better organize your load. Having places to store and organize rain gear, snacks, or a spotter or tripod for quick access is a must for me.
-Adjustable Yoke. This may be one of the best features Mystery Ranch offers on their packs. Many pack companies only offer a small/ medium/large sizing, where a buyer picks the pack size based solely on torso size range he/she falls into. Mystery Ranch packs allow for further customization by allowing the pack user to adjust the torso length of the pack yoke to your body's exact size.
-Water Bottle Pockets. These pockets are located on each side of this pack and can accommodate a one liter plastic bottle. I prefer to use a hydration bladder rather than a water bottle so I never used these pockets for their intended purpose. Instead, I used them to carry my rifles in the field by sliding the butt end of the stock into the pocket and using the pack's side compression straps to affix the rifle to the pack. This worked well with the only drawbacks being that you had to remove your pack to access the rifle and the rifle barrel stuck up relatively high which did create somewhat of a hindrance when backpacking through brush.
The instructions that come from Mystery Ranch when you buy the pack explain the pack features and how to fit the pack for your body type best very well. Also, when you order the pack from Mystery Ranch you will see there are several options for which waistbelt size and yoke size you can select based on where you size up in their pack sizing chart. At 5'9, 155 lbs., I selected a small yoke and small waistbelt.
After using the pack for two action-packed hunting seasons this is what I have to say about the Mystery Ranch NICE 6500:
-This pack is nearly bombproof. After lugging the pack up and down mountains, across scree slopes, through alders, and more, the pack shows just a couple stains and minor blemishes.
-The pack will handle all you are willing to carry and more. The frame will not bundle or buckle even with the 135 pound load I hauled off a mountain on Kodiak Island.
-The pack layout is very nice. There are plenty of exterior pockets to allow quick access to the items you often need to grab in a hurry or often.
-The customer service department at Mystery Ranch is very good. On the phone they are extremely knowledgeable about their products and very willing to work with you.
The not so good:
-Heavy. While the pack is extreme stout and durable it comes at a penalty of being heavy compared to some of the other hunting packs.
-Questionable waistbelt sizing. The size small waistbelt would not go small enough with my 30" waist when the pack was loaded down heavy to keep the majority weight off my shoulders and on my waist. According to the sizing chart, a small should work for those with a 29" to 34" waist. Update: since then, Mystery Ranch now offers a XS size waistbelt for those with smaller than a 29" waist. This might be something for you to consider if you are looking to buy this pack.
-Too small for my liking. Many consider 6500 cubic inches a huge pack. However, if I am going into the backcountry for 10 days, I prefer to have as large of a pack as I can get. Spotting scopes, game bags, knives, guns, binoculars, tripods, and more, all take up additional pack space a normal non-hunting backpacking trip wouldn't require. Having space for the gear and game meat without strapping a lot of gear to the outside of my pack is something I prefer. Update: Mystery Ranch now offers the NICE 7500 which offers an additional 1000 cubic inches for a mere 3 oz of additional weight. If I were to buy the setup again, I would go that route for the extra $25.
In conclusion, if you are looking for a truly "tough as nails" pack that won't let you down for a bit of a weight penalty, the NICE packs from Mystery Ranch may be just what you need.