Mystery Ranch NICE Metcalf Initial Impressions

By Todd Kelly

When I heard that the guys down at Mystery Ranch (MR) had a new bag design for the NICE frame system, it got my attention! I could not wait to see what they had come up with. The announcement came this spring during the 2013 SHOT show where the NICE Metcalf bag was revealed.

I have been through many backpacks over the last 10 years and finally settled on the NICE frame system in 2008. The NICE frame fit my body well and really handled heavy loads like no other frame system I had tried. The only issue I had with the NICE frame was the use of a functional load lifter which is reserved to the larger 6500 and 7500 bags with their frame extensions built into the bag, while the smaller daypack sized NICE bags lacked any actual usefulness out of the load lifter hampering their ability to handle really heavy loads comfortably.  My original purchase of the NICE 6500 was great for backpack hunts and hauling heavy loads, but left a lot to be desired as a day hunting bag. It is too large for my liking, even while compressed, so when I read about the Metcalf and its smaller, low-profile design with frame extension, I put my order in as soon as they were available and immediately put it to work.

The Metcalf is listed at 4500 cubic inches (ci.) with the removable daypack lid, and 3600 ci. without. It’s a simple, no-frills bag without external pockets and a ton of external compression straps (10 in all) distributed on all sides of the pack to cinch down any load.  The bag has a long, 25-inch side zipper located on the right side which allows full access to everything inside the bag, including the one internal, zippered pocket and hydration pouch. Another feature of the bag is the ability to use it in a load sling arrangement for hauling meat or heavy objects close to the frame and increasing the capacity of the system. Hitting the scales at 6 pounds 15 oz. with the daypack lid and NICE frame, and 5 pounds 12 oz. without the daypack lid, the Metcalf is the lightest bag available in the NICE frame line up.

When the Metcalf arrived, I immediately noticed it was much lighter than the other MR packs and the great craftsmanship you expect from a Mystery Ranch product was apparent. Even without instructions, it was pretty easy to figure out how to attach the bag to my NICE frame and I had the bag swapped in less than 5 minutes. I loaded the bag with 75 pounds of gear and headed off on a short hike to test out the ride of the bag. I brought along my 6500 bag to swap back and forth to see if I could tell any difference between the load lifter angles of the two bags (the 6500 has a 26 inch frame length and the Metcalf a 24 inch frame length with the built in frame extensions). I was happy to see that I was unable to tell the difference on how the bags rode loaded with the same amount of weight.

The spring bear season was open, so it wasn’t long before I was able to test the Metcalf in the field. My wife had a Grizzly LEH tag in my favorite road closure area so I knew I was going to get to spend some good time with the bag.

Loading up the pack for the first time was a pleasure with the side access zipper. This side zipper gave me the ability to easily pack and unpack gear I wanted quickly without having to dig blindly from the top down like so many other packs I have used over the years. This is one of the best features of the bag, and I am sure that you will see this side zip on many other bags in the years to come. It also allows you full access to all of your gear by opening one zipper instead of having to open multiple external pockets. During my limited time with the bag (35 days in the field and counting) I have only used the standard top drawstring opening once.

The 10 compression straps on the exterior allowed me to cinch down any load which keeps the profile of the bag down, and also allows me to strap on my tripod and spotting scope, my rifle, and a load of meat and hide. The web-keepers manage loose webbing ends and the lack of external pockets gives the pack a streamlined profile. These features made it almost a pleasure to bust brush and devils club without having to worry about getting the pack caught up like I normally experience with the larger 6500. Originally I thought I was going to miss having external pockets, but I got over that pretty quick. The compression straps also give a guy a few options to attach accessory pockets if you decide you want to add them to the bag.

I tried the load sling feature a couple of times and was not sold on the idea. When moving the bag away from the frame to put it into load shelf mode you have to change the connection point of the load lifters down onto the NICE frame itself making the frame extensions that are sewn into the bag useless. The pack rides a lot better with the bag in its normal position on the frame with the higher load lifter angle. I am sure some people will like this feature as it seems to be the new thing in pack design, but it’s not for me with this bag and frame set up.

At 3600 cubic inches without the daypack lid, the Metcalf will hold a lot of gear – way more meat than most of us would ever want to pack. I was able to load up 5 days’ worth of gear without having to strap anything to the outside of the bag, but once we had an animal down and were packing out, I had to start strapping gear to the exterior of the bag. While this is not a big deal on a shorter trip, I am not a huge fan of doing this and prefer having all my stuff inside the bag, so I will continue to use the 6500 for any trips longer than a couple of days.

I really think the Metcalf is going to shine as a day hunt and weekend trip backpack. I know some are going to say a 3600-4500 cu/in bag is overkill as a day hunting bag, but it’s streamlined profile and load carrying ability is going to be a treat while chasing mule deer in the mountains this coming season. Having the ability to haul out an entire boned-out deer and a days’ worth of gear without having to hike out to fetch a pack board is going to make this my go-to pack for shorter trips.

So if you are looking for a great middle of the road pack that has the ability to do it all in one form or another the Mystery Ranch NICE Metcalf is certainly worth a closer look.