As a rule, I don’t really change my gear very often. When I find a piece of kit that works, I usually stick with it for some time, or until it’s threadbare, worn out or broken. If I see something that appears to perform that function better, I will do my research and decide if an upgrade is justified. This research can take the form of scouring the internet for reviews (mixed results), or taking a close look at the design and figuring out, from my own experience, how I think it will perform. If someone I know has the kit, I’ll ask their opinion and maybe get some hands on the product.
The bigger shows can also be a good opportunity to get hands on such products and get an idea of their functionality. Sometimes however you have to just take the leap, spend the money and see how it goes; sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. If it doesn’t work for you, it might not mean that the product is bad – it could just be that it doesn’t suit you.
Boots are a great example of this. On average I go through a pair of mountain hunting boots every 18 months. I have tried many makes and styles over the years and have found the Meindl Island Pro to be a great boot for me, but it does have a couple of points for improvement. A couple of seasons ago I bought a pair of Scarpa Charmoz, and they met all the criteria I was looking for: rigidity, synthetic materials to aid fast drying, and the rest. The only drawback? They didn’t suit my foot – they were too narrow. So after months of persevering with cut toes and blisters, I finally resigned myself to the fact that while these were a fantastic boot, they simply didn’t suit me. I passed those same boots on to a friend of mine who loves them – they fit him great and he appreciates all the excellent design features of the boot.
So after much research, I have a few new key pieces of hunting kit this year. The first is a new scope – it’s a Leupold VX-6 HD 3-18×50 with the Varmint Hunter reticle. I was looking for a scope that I could dial or hold for elevation. I use such a system on my old scope but the integers are in 0.1 mRad (1cm). This system has worked really well for me but I wanted to try find a simpler solution. I was looking for a system that I could dial my distance in yards in a ballistic-style turret and also have a holdover option in a ballistic reticle. This would mean I have no need to convert my range to clicks or mils hold – it should be a simpler system. A key requirement for me was to have the ability to hold for wind with both aiming methods. Other criteria were: Lightweight and tidy size, locking turrets and reliability. At the IWA trade show in Germany I found the scope I was looking for on the Leupold stand. I have used Leupold scopes and spotting scopes in the past and always found them to be ultra-reliable.
I’ve used the VX6 for numerous hunts so far this season and have put it through its paces in fairly demanding conditions. From the outset I was impressed with the look of the scope, its tidy profile and well thought out design features. Everything from the locking turrets to the flip up lens covers is quality, tidy and functional. The illuminated reticle also provides an anti-cant function that blinks if you are canting the rifle. This function was handy for setting up the rifle and also for long range practice, but only works when the reticle is on. An improvement of this excellent feature would be if it flashed without the reticle on.
One of my favourite features of this scope is the crosshair, I am going to say that for me it is the perfect thickness. The ballistic reticle worked out really well with my 130gr Federal Vital Shok – with a 200-yard zero I am 1.5in high at 100 yards and my stadia lines translate as 300, 400, 500, 600 and 650 yards respectively at 18x power. I’ve repeatedly tested this at the range and it works – just ensure that you are on the correct magnification. With a second focal plane scope like this, your ballistic holdovers will change as your magnification changes, but your clicks remain constant at all magnifications and you’ll be fine. This means that a pre-fire check on your magnification is something you need to build in to your shot process when using holdovers.
Another feature of the Christmas tree-style ballistic reticle is that each line has two wind hold marks, the end of the line and a dot. The manual says that these are a 10mph and 20mph wind hold, but in practical terms I found them to equal a 15mph and 30mph wind hold for my set up. I figured this out by measuring the stadia in mRad and applying my known data, and confirmed it by launching bullets at targets in measured wind conditions.
The main horizontal crosshair also has windage marks on it. These work out at approximately .5 mRad which means that I can use my old wind formula system when I am dialling for range. For my .270 Win using the 130gr Federal it means that in a 5MPH wind my wind-holds are as follows; 200yds = 0.2; 300Yds = 0.3; 400yds = 0.4; 500yds = 0.5. This is a system that is super easy to remember. For stronger or lighter winds you just multiply your hold. For example, at 400 yards in a 5mph wind my hold is 0.4, in a 10 mph it is 0.8 (0.4 x2) and in a 15mph it is 1.2. (0.4 x3).
The turrets on this scope are super tidy and the locking mechanism is super simple. I love a locking or capped windage turret, because I never dial for wind. If you do dial for wind then a simple locking turret will be your friend! My next task is to get a custom turret for it that will give me distance in yards as opposed to the ¼MOA. Leupold offer this service, so I’ll let you know how this works out.
So once the shooting is over it’s time to get the deer off the hill. There are a couple of common options here: drag, pack or ATV. Guess which is the easiest! An ATV is an awesome tool, but it has its limitations and there are certain areas where its use is forbidden. Dragging is good if it is downhill, but it’s not as clean as packing out. Packing is a good option and I most often use it, but to do this with heavy loads for long distances required a good pack and a good level of strength and conditioning.
I have used numerous frame packs over the years that include Tatonka, Bergans and Kuiu. The Tatonka and Bergans use an alloy frame, while the Kuiu uses a carbon frame. Each have their pros and cons and all performed well in different roles. The Tatonka, with some structural modifications and a lid, was the one I used the most because it was pretty much just a bare frame that I could strap the deer to. This meant it was easy to clean and could handle the awkward shape of a stag or a hind and calf. The Kuiu and the Bergans were good for expedition-style trips with tents, sleep system, food and so on, and the Kuiu won out here because it was about 4kg lighter!
Over the past three or four years I had become aware of a brand called Kifaru. They have a modular system and are renowned as specialists in hunting packs and shelters. I wanted a pack that was high quality and highly functional. I pack out a lot of deer every year throughout our six-month long season and I also love getting into the hills to hike and camp, so my packs get a lot of use and abuse. I am also aware of injury prevention and know that on occasion I am prone to pushing my pack weights to a level that is close to my own body weight. I have worked hard over many years to develop the strength and conditioning to do this, but the danger of injury is always in the back of my mind. To minimise that danger, I decided it was time to invest a little bit.
The range of packs available on the Kifaru web site is significant, and because I can’t have them all, I needed some help to narrow it down. I emailed Kifaru and explained what I do and the options I was thinking about. They responded quickly and gave me the reassurance that the system I was looking at would work well. A few weeks later a rather large box was sitting in my yard, full of my made-to-order Kifaru goodies.
The quality and workmanship of this gear is unreal. All of the components and materials are made in the USA, and it shows. I went for the Tactical frame, which is their most heavy duty option (but still lightweight). To this I added a cargo net and guide lid for packing out animals and the modular option of a Nomad 2 bag and Grab-it sling for my expedition hunts or camping trips. The system is hyper-adjustable and there is a range of bags, pouches and options that can be added to the frame. What immediately struck me was the quality of the shoulder and hip straps. The detailed form-shaped hip straps have proven to be ideal for my body shape and really spread the weight to the hips, thus allowing your legs, which have the biggest muscles, to do the work.
So far I have only used the cargo net set-up along with the Guide Lid and it has been fantastic. I have had loads of up to 65kg (140lb-ish) on board for distances of up to 3km over rough mountain terrain and it has performed better than any pack I have ever used. The cargo net takes a bit of time to set up, but the load is held really solidly and never budged an inch. The Guide Lid has room for my spotting scope, rain gear, head torch, knife, lunch and power pack, and it does a good job of securing the top of a tall load like a hybrid stag. The pack when empty is super light, low profile and doesn’t push your head down when crawling. I’ve also found that it is a really good rear rest for the butt of my rifle if I am shooting from the kneeling position off of my Spartan Precision Sentinel Tripod.
On the hip belt I have a water bottle and a small pouch, and sometimes I’ll stick my camera holster on there too. There is no denying that the Kifaru gear has a serious price tag, but it seems to be most definitely a case of ‘you get what you pay for’.
Next on the review list is the Spartan Precision Sentinel tripod. In the spirit of full disclosure it’s important that I point out I am involved with Spartan Precision Equipment from a product development and testing perspective. I became involved with Spartan because I saw their kit and liked what they were doing. As time went by I got to know them and one thing led to another. This is a small UK-based company led by the character that is Rob Gearing, aka Mr G. They are dedicated to making the best kit for hunters, and the Sentinel Tripod is an example of that. This tripod can also be a bipod, a monopod, a pair of trekking poles and a tent support system. I use it to mount my binos on for steady glassing (if you haven’t tried this then you’re missing out), to mount my spotting scope or my camera. I shoot off it in tripod or bipod mode in standing, kneeling and sitting positions. It is a true carbon fibre leg with an incredibly strong leg lock system. I love the magnetic spigot system on the ball head that allows me to securely mount all of my optics or my rifle.
I am a fan of the Sentinel tripod – it is truly modular and that perfect blend of ultralight meets durability. I am also very excited about some new additions that are in the pipeline – I’ll keep you posted…