Top Ten Best Backcountry Hunting Gear of 2020-Staff Picks
By Josh Kirchner and Brad Brooks
The votes are in! With more days than we can effectively remember spent in the field for 2020, a lot of gear was put to the test. While most of the gear that we used worked just fine, some items definitely stood out to us. So, we've compiled a list of our Top Ten Best Backcountry Hunting Gear of 2020 in no particular order. A note of caution: we tried hard to ONLY include hunting gear that was new to us for 2020, but we also through in a few pieces that were personal favorites to us in 2020 even if they aren't new products. And just so you don't think we're overly biased, we didn't include our own gear in this review (which as you can imagine was difficult). In no particular order:
1. Feathered Friends Raven 10 Degree Sleeping Bag (Brad)
A good, lightweight sleeping bag that will keep you warm in cold weather is hard to find. We have literally tested 5 different brands and a whole heap of styles, quilts, and everthing in between looking for a warm, light sleeping bag that works for those late season backpack hunts when the temperature drops. I've been on a 4 year journey trying to find this unicorn of a sleeping bag and I finally found one. Feathered Friends is a well known mountaineering and backpacking brand, and their years of experience and designs they use on their sleeping bags are tailor made for backcountry hunters.
We tested the Raven on several hunts through October and November, and when paired with our favorite Exped Synmat winter pad, not once did we get cold. With 950+ down fill and a comfy zipper and neck baffle to keep out drafts, this bag is flat out warm and well designed. On one trip in particular, temps were flirting in the single digits, and as a cold sleeper I thought I was going to have to suffer through the night. But this bag kept me warm, which surpised me since 1) I am a cold sleeper and with most sleeping bags I would need at least a 0 degree bag if not warmer for temperatures that cold; and 2) most temperature ratings on sleeping bags are designed as survial, not comfort ratings.
This sleeping bag is expensive, but it is worth every penny. I'll be testing more Feathered Friends models in the future, but so far this bag has amazed me with how well it performed and the weight/warmth ratio is literally second to none. Check out these sleeping bags. You will not be disappointed.
2. Vortex Razor UHD 10x42 UHD Binoculars (Brad)
We've been using Vortex Optics products for a long time, but the new UHD bino series are an incredible pair of binoculars that are in a class of their own in terms of optics quality. I ran the UHD's through the spring and fall, from turkey hunting, blacktails in Kodiak, archery mule deer in Nevada, Idaho and a host of other western hunts. The UHDs stood out in particular in low light conditions and the crispness of the sight picture even at long distance. Even in places like Nevada, where I was glassing over long distances looking for mule deer that were mostly hidden in dense brush, the 10x42's provided plenty of horsepower, particularly when I put my binos on a tripod (which if you aren't doing you really need to try out). As an "all around" size, the 10x42's were absolutely incredible. The Razor UHD line from Vortex stacks up against any top tier pair of binoculars, and the 10x42 size will continue to be my "do it all" size for 90% of my hunting no matter where I'm at.
3. Vortex Razor HD 4000 Range Finder (Josh)
In the days of old, rangefinders were more of a fantasy than a reality for me. Fast forwarding to present day with options like the Vortex Razor HD 4000 is a classic example of a night and day difference. The optical clarity of this rangefinder is impressive to say the least. It's not often when one can actually glass a bit with a rangefinder. That's exactly what I've found myself doing with it in close quarters. Close quarters aside though, there is a 4000 in the name for a reason. This beast of a rangefinder can reach out and touch reflective targets to 4000 yards and do it in a snap of the finger to boot. I was blown away by how quickly this thing gives readings. It makes ranging a quicker process and does it effectively. This isn't just for rifle hunters either with those impressive yardage readings. I've used this thing countless times as an avid bowhunter trying to plan stalks. For instance, if I've got a deer bedded at 1250 yards, but there is a big boulder behind that deer at 1300 yards, now we're cooking. If I can get to that rock, I know that I'll have a 50 yard shot to the deer. Of course it has magical angle compensating powers as well, which is much appreciated. Bottom line, the Razor HD 4000 is here to stay.
4. First Lite Brooks Vest (Josh)
I've never been much of a vest guy. I'm not really sure why, but they've just never made their way into my clothing system until now. Being a huge fan of the Brooks Down Sweater from First Lite, I decided to give the Brooks Down Vest a shot though. This item soon became a favorite of mine on multiple trips to Colorado this past Fall. Loaded up with 800 fill, 37.5 Down Tek, this vest really helps in the insulation department. And it does it at a mere 8.5 oz. The thing really doesn't feel like much when it's in your hand, but don't judge a book by its weight. Of course because it's down, the Brooks vest also compresses small very easily, offering great packability. In fact, this thing goes down so small, it can literally fit in my pocket. Yes, I actually put the vest in my pocket to test this out. I'd wear this over my base layers and under the main insulator of my clothing kit. Now, I can officially say, I am indeed a vest guy.
5. First Lite Chamberlin Puffy Jacket (Brad)
I know, I know. This isn't new for 2020. But, this jacket sill earned a top place in my favorite gear list. In a world of micro puffy, mid puffy, and large puffy jackets, there are seemingly limitless options for down jackets. And yet, the Chamberlin stounds out from the crowd. It is incredibly warm, packs down well, and thanks to the nylon shell cuts the wind on those brisk mornings. The Chamberin is always in my hunting kit for cold mornings and evenings from late September through December and into January. As a bonus, I use it for my pillow on backpack hunts. This is one of those jackets that everybody should own if you hunt in cold weather.
6. Day Six Arrows and Broadheads (Brad and Josh)
We both used Day Six Arrows and Broadheads this year starting in the early spring. To start, Day Six Arrows have one of the most durable arrow and insert/outsert designs we have seen and used. The unique way the collar and outsert work with the arrow make for an incredibly long lasting setup, even when your arrow hits the dirt. On many occasions, particularly when practicing long distance shots on 3D targets, we had plenty of target misses. But unlike many other arrow brands we've used in the past, after a dirt hit, our arrow and insert didn't wobble at all. These arrows are just damn tough.
We were also impressed with the fact that when you buy a dozen day six arrows, you get a dozen clean spinning shafts. There are few things more frustrating than buying a dozen expensive arrows and throwing them on your arrow spinner only to find out that half of your arrows have a wobble in them. For some reason, the crew at Day Six figured out how to make their carbon shafts consistently straight, and we have yet to get any wobble out of them.
Last, in addition to making fantastic shafts, the S30V stainless broadheads made by Day Six are an incredible broadhead. In a world where there are hundreds of choices for broadheads, most of which are single use designed, the Day Six Evo Broadheads are a long-lasting, sharp, and easy to re-use and re-sharpen. This is a cut on contact two bladed head with bleeders that is tough as nails and ready for anything you throw at it.
7. Sirui VA-5 Pan Head (Josh)
Down here in Arizona, glassing is the name of the game. And not just glassing, but glassing from a tripod for hours on end. When doing this it's highly beneficial to have a smooth panning head in order to really tear apart the hills and see what doesn't want to be seen. The Sirui VA-5 has taken up residence in my backpack the past year and I don't plan on sending an eviction notice anytime soon. One word comes to mind with this pan head and it's "quality." The machining is second to none and the performance is as well. This is as smooth of a head as they come and I've often gotta remind myself to stop glassing to get a drink, just for the sheer fact I can use it all day long effortlessly. More time behind the glass means a better chance at turning up that buck. On top of excelling in performance, it's also durable and can handle the rigors of backcountry hunting from 100+ degree temps down to the single digits and from shale rock to brush busting. The Sirui VA-5 is something to seriously consider for those serious about their glassing.
8. Scott Archery Sigma Release (Josh)
Handheld releases in bowhunting have seem to really gain in popularity over the last few years. I moved to a handheld a little over a year ago and haven't looked back to the wrist strap release. This switch has increased my accuracy and consistency a ton and the Scott Archery Sigma Release is the handheld I landed on for it. After trying out a pile of thumb releases the Sigma is the one that both felt the best in my hand, and felt the smoothest on the shot. There is a load of customization features in this thing. From multiple trigger position adjustments to trigger tension adjustments the release can be fit to the shooter, not the other way around. I've also put this thing through the ringer in terms of abuse on hunts and not once has a failure presented itself. That means a lot and is something I don't take lightly.
9. Garmin GPSMAP 66i Satellite Communicator (Josh)
Satellite communication devices have become a staple in backcountry hunters' kits across the globe, with the most popular being the inreach. These a nifty little tools that allow one to send and receive text messages via satellite. This means that no matter where you are, you can communicate with loved ones. Along with communication, they also have an SOS button. Should you find yourself in a sticky situation, say with a broken leg or something, a press of this button will connect you with search and rescue, followed by help being on the way. In short, an inreach device is a must have across the board for a backcountry hunter.
I've personally ran an inreach device for years. They've literally become a game changer for me. It gives my wife a peace of mind back home when she receives a text saying that I'm back at camp. I also run a Garmin Fenix 5x Plus watch that I use for my main GPS navigation. So, when I saw that Garmin was coming out with a full sized inreach device that could connect to my watch, giving one the ability to sync waypoints, and even respond to texts through the watch, I was listening. The Garmin GPS 66i Satellite Communicator then came home with me. I've really been enjoying using this thing. Even the buttons are a pleasure to press, as simple as that sounds. It seems much more responsive than the original Explorer +, the mapping is much better looking, and it's got that nifty watch feature. The reason I'm so pumped about that is because I mark waypoints oftentimes just with my watch to be quick. Those waypoints are automatically saved into the inreach map as well. So, I'm not remarking things over again through multiple devices like I had done in the past. It's just more efficient. Along with the features I've mentioned, the 66i also has a built in flashlight. That's something unique that could come in handy in a pinch. One will also be able to stay up to date with weather forecasts too. There are many more features that come with the 66i, but these are just a few that stuck out to me. This is with me on every trip I take whether it's a day hunt or week long adventure.
10. Nosler Mountain Carbon Rifle (Brad)
I have shot the mountain carbon for two years running, and have been able to take it on two Alaska trips as well over a dozen western hunts. This year I shot one chambered in a 6.5 creedmore (fan girls unite!), which I said I would never do (spoiler alert: I loved it), and my favorite caliber the 28 Nosler. I've witnessed this rifle shoot roughly two dozen animals either by my hand or by others in the field, shot them at long distances banging steel, and it is flat out incredible. The Mountain Carbon has been a phenomal shooter in every caliber we have used (4 so far), the carbon fiber stock is is comfortable and lightweight, and the action is buttery smooth. Not to mention, I like having the carbon fiber proof research barrel not only because of the weight savings, but it has been one less piece of metal I have to worry about corrosion on during extended hunting trips in wet weather (particularly in Alaska). The mountain carbon is a fantastic mountain rifle and I cannot recommend them enough to anyone looking for a do-it-all rifle in a lightweight package.
So, there ya have it! Our Top 10 Gear picks for 2020. 2021 is knocking on the door with even more opportunity to test new gear in the future and we can't wait. If you've got any questions about this stuff, feel free to reach out to us, and we'll provide any insight we can. Now, it's your turn though. Because we are gear nerds through and through, we want to hear what your favorite gear items were in 2020. Was it a new bow or a clothing item that was a game changer possibly? Let's hear it!