Reviewing a backpack is a daunting task because of how complicated it can be. There are as many packs out there as there are body types and each one serves its own specific purpose. Some are built for ultra light hiking while others for heavy load hauling. Some are meant for a lifetime of abuse while others will last but a few years. If you ask my close friends, they'd tell you that I have a minor obsession with backpacks of any kind and what my obsession has taught be over the years is that unlike the Lord of the Rings, there is not one backpack to rule them all. With that in mind, though daunting as it may be, I’m so pleased with my Exo Mountain Gear 3500 that I can't help but tell of how great it is.
I've been on the search for the right backpack for a number of years now and always find myself disappointed at what the general market had to offer. What was available to me at my local outdoor stores seemed bland and cheap and the supposed "experts" working there never gave me the impression that they actually knew what they were talking about. It's not their fault, they have to sell backpacks one minute and a bicycle the next. I probably shouldn't have expected so much from them, but I did and I now realize the error of my ways.
A few years back a friend of mine who knew of search for the Holy Grail recommended that I check out Mystery Ranch. Maybe it's inappropriate to mention competing backpack manufacturers here, but since I pay the bills for this website and since it's my money that was used to purchase this gear, I'm going to do it anyhow. I've read blogs where the writer all but names the company they're referring to so what's the point? Let's be blunt and just come out with it! Mystery Ranch had exactly what I was looking for. They had a rich history, products built to last a lifetime, and were one of few companies at the time to have a modular design. This meant that the shoulder harness and frame could remain the same while the bag could be swapped out for something different. They called it the NICE frame and I fell head over heals for it. I loved the idea that I could comfortably haul an animal quarter with the pack or just use it as a normal functioning backpack for various purposes. It was built like a tank and the Longbow bag had a killer tri-zip design that I really liked. I pulled the trigger and awaited its arrival.
I couldn't have been happier with my NICE Longbow but it would be over a year before I'd have the opportunity stretch its legs. I'd taken it on short backpacking trips of maybe 2 to 4 miles, however any pack feels great at those distances. In May of 2015, I finally had the chance to get to know my Mystery Ranch pack on a two day hike on the Loowit Trail which circumvents Mount St. Helens a total of 30 miles or so. The route we took brought us roughly 13 miles the first day and nearly 17 miles the second.
I began feeling the pain from my pack about 6 miles into the hike as the meat of my hips were becoming bruised from the hip belt. I spent most of the hike adjusting the pack but just couldn't get it to ride comfortably and by the time we reached our campsite for the night, my hips and shoulders were hurting pretty bad from the pack. The next day proved to be more of the same. My pack only weighed in at about 40 lbs. or so but my hips were so tender that it felt like over 50 lbs. Nothing felt right and I wished for the hike to be over. When I got home that night, I felt like someone had taken a baseball bat to my hips. My beloved pack hated me and I now hated it back. I began to wonder if maybe it needed some sort a break in period in order for the hip belt to become contoured to my body but that if that was truly the case, I wanted nothing to do with it.
A few weeks after my pain-filled trip, I was surfing Craigslist and found a guy selling a 2014 Exo Mountain Gear 3500. It was the first year they made this pack and I quickly swooped it up for about $300. Not a week later, I was headed back up to St. Helens with some friends for an overnight hike totaling 10 miles - 6 miles in and 4 miles out. I knew this wouldn't be a hike that would bring out the Exo skeletons from the closet, but I figured it could give me a general idea of its performance. I packed it up with about 35 lbs. and hit the trail.
The Exo 3500 felt incredible for the next 6 miles. It flexed with me when I needed it to, secured nicely to my hips, and took the weight completely off of my shoulders without sagging down off my hips. It felt so comfortable that I recall taking off the pack only one time during the hike, which was during our lunch break. Other than that, I was content with keeping it on during breaks because of how little it bothered me. Forget the great functionality and overall design of the pack, I was simply pleased with how well it rode. I was shocked that a pack could ride so well and was officially a believer.
I returned home from that trip and decided to sell my Mystery Ranch pack. With the money from the sale of my Mystery Ranch NICE Longbow, I purchased a 2015 Exo 3500 so I could sway friends into backpacking with me. Comparing the features of both packs side by side, I decided that the Exo 3500 had exactly what I wanted and was functional for my purposes.
I could probably write for days about the Exo pack and the features I enjoy about it so I'll try to condense it down to a few quick points. The pack is modular in design but at this point, Exo Mountain Gear only makes two pack sizes - a 3500 cubic inch and a 5500 cubic inch. They are identical and only differ in cubic inch sizing. They have a highly water resistant main bag which includes a vertical access zipper, two long pockets on either side of the pack, a stretch pocket on the back for stuffing various items into, a removable floating lid (2015 model only, the 2014 model has an attached lid), two small side stretch pockets, a titanium frame, and a load shelf capability. The hip-belt and shoulder harness of the Exo pack are pliable enough to hug your body without inducing any pain, but thick enough to spread the weight around evenly. There is an added benefit of the hip-belt having a non-slip pad that sits nicely on your lower back and is quite comfortable. The shoulder harness is fully adjustable for various torso lengths that is quickly and easily done.
One of my favorite features of the Exo pack is the ability to quickly separate the bag from the frame. This was designed for backpack hunters who, if successful in the field, do not have to mix the contents of the main bag with animal parts during the hike out. I've found that when not loaded down with meat, the load shelf is a great place to store my tent and water bladder. When I get to camp, I’m able to easily access my tent and avoid looking like I'm working a yard sale. I'm able to keep all the contents of my pack in my pack until I'm ready crawl inside my home to set up shop. On the flip side, storing my tent in the load shelf of the Exo pack allows me to pack up while leaving the tent for last. Once the pack is full and I’m ready to roll out, I simply fold up the tent and sandwich it between the frame and the bag. No more wet tent inside the pack! This technique came in handy this past summer when I had to break down my camp in the rain. I was able to keep myself and all of my items dry until the last possible minute. As for the tent poles, I simply slide these into the vertical side pockets of the pack so they're protected and not taking up valuable space inside the main bag.
While I've yet to put 16 miles in one day hiking with this pack, I have done several more trips into the hills since receiving both the 2014 and 2015 models. The 2015 model varies slightly from the 2014 but for the most part both models function the same. The biggest difference you'll notice right away is the floating lid on the 2015 model. I've been loaded down with 50 lbs. for an overnight trip, hiked in the rain without a rain cover, compressed it down to use as a daypack, and have not yet regretted my purchase. The only way I can think to describe this pack is that it just makes sense. It has everything I need, and nothing I don't. It's doesn't have any unnecessary features and it's not the type of pack that is built for only one purpose. It's literally one of the most versatile packs I've come across to date and it weighs in at less than 5 lbs. For a pack that weighs so little, has about 4500 total cubic inches of usable space (main bag and side pockets), and is capable of handling loads over 100lbs, it sure makes me feel like I've struck gold.
The miles that I've walked with the Exo thus far have been great. Yes, the more the pack weighs the more the it sags over time, but that's to be expected and I’m sure I can figure out a way to reduce that tendency. In comparison to my former Mystery Ranch pack, the Exo pack actually makes the contents inside feel lighter, not heavier over the miles. I still have a very high amount of respect for Mystery Ranch, but for me, their design just didn't work. I love the feel and layout of the Exo Mountain Gear design and with regard to form and function, it fills both of those requirements with ease.
Before I close this post, there's one last feature that for me is worthy of mention. I live in the Pacific Northwest where it rains heavily during hunting seasons. This past October I had the opportunity to find out how well the Exo 3500 held up in severe downpours with no cover on it. There's always a point during the rain shower that I cringe at the site of water pooling up on my pack. It wasn't any different this year and I often found myself having to brush off standing water time and time again. Each time I'd get back to the truck, I'd check the contents of the bag to see if there was any leakage and not once did I find any. The fact that I can trust this pack to keep my things dry in a steady downpour for hours on end puts this pack at the top of my list.
This post is far from over when I stop typing. I'm going to continue to use my Exo pack for as long as I can and in as many conditions as possible so I can gain a better overall impression of its performance. I plan to pass it off to friends to use to see how they like it, and will update this post if I happen across something worthy of mention. So far, it's been money well spent and I wouldn't trade it away for the world. There are a handful of items that are important to a successful backpacking trip and having the right pack for the job is one of them. It's what you carry your belongings in and if it doesn't function well, you're going to hate it. Lucky for me, I've found what I'm looking for in the Exo Mountain Gear 3500 and would suggest this pack to anyone looking for a pack that can literally do it all.