Mystery Ranch has updated their minimalist expedition hunting pack, the NICE Metcalf, for 2014. The Metcalf is a minimalist duffel on frame design utilizing Mystery Ranch’s NICE load bearing frame and suspension. Mystery Ranch is known for tough, durable, and functional packs that aren’t necessarily ultralight. I weighed the pack on my digital hanging scale and got a weight of 7.08 pounds with the lift kit but without the Alpine Lid; and 7.68 pounds with the lid.
The pack design is a top loading 500D Cordura duffel with one detail pocket on the lower driver’s side. The passenger side hosts a full length, weather-resistant heavy duty side zip for quick access to the main compartment. There is a nylon snow collar with draw closure. Six heavy duty straps with auto-lock buckles attach the bag to the frame.
The author found the NICE Metcalf’s full side zip extremely convenient
The Metcalf is shipped with the new Alpine lid, which is a simple two compartment compression lid for additional storage and organization. Mystery Ranch lists storage capacity of the Metcalf and Alpine lid at 4200 cubic inches combined. Of course this expands greatly giving the newly integrated load shelf on the 2014 Metcalf. Slinging a load is pretty straightforward. Simply unbuckle the duffel from the bag, lay the works flat on the ground, place the load (elk quarter, boned out muley, gas can, whatever) on the NICE, buckle everything back up, and crank it down. The new integrated shelf supports the bottom of the load. The pack interior is feature-free save the water bladder pocket and hanger.
The NICE suspension is a well-cushioned heavy duty three-piece foam belt and yolk-style shoulder harness with tapering straps. There is a single mesh-lined thin foam torso pad that compliments the harness. Several yoke and belt sizes are available, and the user can fine tune the fit by adjusting the position of the yoke sheet. The load lifters connect either directly to the NICE top buckles, or the top buckles of the optional “lift kit.” The lift kit attaches firmly to the frame, extending frame members above the top of the frame and supplying substantial traditional lift.
The NICE frame was supportive and comfortable, and the “lift kit” accessory really helped big loads
That is a lot of nice looking technology that looks and feels like it is ready for a landmine. But how does it do in the field?
To find out, I dragged it around the woods bear hunting, training, hiking, fishing, scouting, and backpacking. There is no need to baby this pack. Everything is expertly stitched with heavy duty thread. The buckles look like they came off eighteen-wheeler tie downs. The fabric shrugs off sticks, thorns, rocks, and other backcountry hazards. The suspension provides a tight-to-the-body feel. I found the Lift Kit essential. When loaded up with 80 pound plus loads, the load bearing without the kit was OK feeling, but after the lift kit was added, comfort improved dramatically. The belt is a very comfortable belt that rides supported by the iliac crest of the pelvis. I have yet to have any real discomfort with this suspension and the lift kit, even with very heavy loads. Even though the suspension fits tightly to the back, the mesh lining seems to move perspiration moisture quite well, and I didn’t get as soaked as I have with some other packs.
I received the pack before the Alpine Lid was available, so I spent most of my time with the pack in a “lidless” configuration. Even though I like to organize internally with stuff sacks, this was just a little too minimalist for me. I kept wishing I had one more pocket in addition to the side pocket for frequently used items and food. When the Alpine lid arrived, I got two more, and just the right size. One works great for lights, maps, GPS, etc. and the other has ample room for lunch. The side zip is a fantastic feature. I could throw the spotting scope and tripod inside the pack protected and secure while still having easy access. I left the soft case at home.
With two compression straps in addition to those attacking to the frame, attaching weapons was pretty easy. A bow goes flat on the back, and still allows access to the side pocket and side zip. A rifle will ride similarly, but I spent my bear hunts with the rifle lashed to the side. This rode well, but did limit access to the side pocket or side zip, depending on the side. The belt has webbing ready for accessories and I kept my camera in a belt pouch. Similarly the straps effectively reduce the pack volume to nothing for light and fast pursuits.
The NICE Metcalf compresses well after unloading camp
Overall, this pack has performed for me very well. My summertime/scouting use has been confidence inspiring. I look forward to the fall hunts. One thing I would like to see is a lighter weight hunting-specific version of the NICE frame streamlined with the lift kit integrated. I just don’t see myself removing the lift kit extension. It helps heavy loads immensely, but doesn’t get in the way on lighter loads. Another thing I noticed was I had to learn how to use the auto-lock buckles, since you have to press the release cam to relieve the tension. Turns out the muscle memory from releasing traditional tension lock buckles is a tough one to break!
Mystery Ranch’s auto-lock buckles are big, strong, and durable
Stay tuned to see how the Mystery Ranch NICE Metcalf does for me in the hunting fields this fall.