Best of the Vests
Most of us have a favorite upland vest, one that’s well worn enough to be as comfortable as an old friend, even if it’s not in the best shape. But what do we do when it’s time to retire “Old Reliable”? Sometimes you have to go through a few models to find the same perfect fit and the features you’re looking for. If you’re shopping for a vest, there are plenty of options on the market, with some new names like Under Armour stepping into the market and stalwarts like L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer offering modern versions of classic designs. Recently, I got my hands on eight of the latest offerings. Maybe one of them will have your back this fall.
Boyt Mesh Back Upland Vest
A South Texas quail hunt, the Nebraska Sandhills for sharptails in September, Indian summer on the high plains for Huns. These are just a few of the situations where Boyt’s Mesh Back Upland Vest shines. Light in weight and cool in design, the vest, as the name suggests, features a mesh back that extends from the upper shoulders to the lumbar region to keep air circulating on hot days. To further the cooling effect, the front of the liner is mesh as well, with panels that open to the front of the vest. In fact, the only part of the vest’s interior that isn’t mesh is the lower quarter, where lightweight cotton backs the wrap-around game bag, and the cotton backing up the leather shoulder patches. To accommodate the maximum amount of mesh across the upper back, the bloodproof game bag, which can be loaded from the front or back, does sit a bit lower than most, reducing the volume. However, a large bellowed bottom and snap-open sides create more than enough room for a limit of three pheasants. Front bellowed pockets are stitched with elastic shell holders that accommodate five rounds each, with ample space to dump a full box of shells below. Hunter orange with brown-suede shoulder patches. Price: $96.
Boyt Harness Co., 800-550-2698; www.boytharness.com.
Browning Bird’n Lite Strap Vest
If you’re looking for a load-bearing vest that’s not overbuilt and fully functional, you should consider the Bird’n Lite series from Browning. Like the WingWorks model (p. 148), the Bird’n Lite Strap Vest takes its design elements from the world of backpacks, which are made to ease heavy loads carried over miles of varying terrain. Built into the back of the vest, a wide, padded lumbar support with accompanying waist belt secures the vest tightly just above the hips. A sternum strap locks the vest at the chest, keeping the load centered, while adjustable load-bearing shoulder straps like those found on backpacks cinch the load high and tight to the back. This unique system transfers the weight onto your hips, relieving your back, neck and shoulders of the burden from a limit of birds, a box of shells, water bottles and whatever else you find yourself packing. One thing you don’t have to worry about lugging is extra weight from the vest itself. As the name suggests, the Bird’n Lite doesn’t weigh much, crafted with a poly/cotton blend that’s soft but not flimsy, and it doesn’t have unnecessary accoutrements. Basic pocket design features two large shell pockets with loops, lined handwarmer pockets behind the shell pockets, two drawstring water-bottle pockets and a handy flap-covered, elastic-top rucksack built into the game bag that can be loaded easily from the front. Also included are padded shoulder straps, D rings for accessories, and a license tab. Tan with hunter orange. Price: $149.
Browning, 800-333-3288; www.browning.com.
Columbia Ptarmigan II Vest
As I mentioned in July/August’s Field Gear column, Columbia is reintroducing its once-popular Ptarmigan upland vest with a version offering updates in both fabric and design. The shell of the Ptarmigan II is 100-percent polyester, with a canvas-like, flax-color back and lower portion and a finer-woven, hunter-orange upper yoke. Both materials are treated with Omni-Shield: Columbia’s durable water-resistant finish that repels light rain, snow, mud, blood and even hot coffee. Inside, the back of the liner is nylon mesh to promote better airflow. The game bag also features mesh side panels, which help cool gamebirds quicker on warm days. With top and side zippers, the bag opens flat for easy cleaning. Up front the vest is fitted with two oversize pockets with snap-equipped bellows that open to accommodate at least a full box of shells each. The flap on each pocket closes securely with hook-and-loop fasteners. There is also a zippered interior pocket for securing valuables. Price: $129.
Columbia, 800-622-6953; www.columbia.com.
Eddie Bauer Mabton Flats Vest
Eddie Bauer, which recently unveiled its new Sport Shop Collection of shooting and hunting gear, will be welcomed back into the hunting fold if all of its new clothing is like the Mabton Flats Vest. Ruggedly built of water-repellent Cordura cotton duck in the body with polyester overlays, the Mabton is cut a bit longer than traditional upland vests, fitting more like a vest for the range than the fields. This isn’t a bad thing, as it offers protection and coverage over the top of the pants without restricting or constraining walking. Other smart design features include large shell pockets with snap flaps that tuck inside the pockets for easier shell access and a two-way zipper, something rarely found on upland vests but handy nonetheless. Interestingly, one feature that is traditionally found on upland vests is conspicuously absent: shell loops. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as I typically don’t use them, preferring the dump-and-go method of carrying shotshells. But some folks might miss them. In place of the loops, the inside of each shell pocket is fitted with an elastic-top pocket and hook-and-loop fastener for securing an e-collar transmitter or, I suppose, a cell phone. Other pockets include four on the chest (two of which have snap closures) and three inside, including a zippered pocket perfectly sized for a wallet or license. The gusseted rear game bag zips open for easy cleaning, though I do wish it was front-loading. Flax with hunter-orange overlays. Price: $199.
Eddie Bauer, 800-426-8020; www.eddiebauer.com.
Filson Pro Guide Strap Vest
It seems that whenever I run into a grizzled old bird hunter in the field, he’s carrying a nondescript but well-made shotgun and wearing a Filson strap vest. While the shotgun may be well cared for, both the hunter and vest usually show years of hard use—yet often appear to have many good years left. That’s the nature of Filson gear: It wears well, getting a bit dirty and a bit crinkled but remaining functional. I don’t know how long the Strap Vest has been in Filson’s line of great gear, but the Pro Guide model has updated looks, with hunter-orange panels on the pocket flaps and game bag and new elastic-top transmitter pockets on the front. It’s made from Filson’s legendary tan Tin Cloth, an oil-finished, 100-percent-cotton canvas that’s both waterproof and super tough. The orange patches are of durable acrylic Ten Mile Cloth sewn over the Tin Cloth shell. Large shell pockets (with six shell loops each) are fronted by bellows pockets to stash smaller necessities, and there is a zippered interior security pocket. A padded, weight-bearing belt secures via a two-inch web strap and quick-release buckles, while a sternum strap secures the front of the vest. The only thing keeping the Pro Guide Vest from hitting on all cylinders is the absence of any kind of shoulder-strap adjustment. Price: $185.
Filson, 866-860-8906; www.filson.com.
L.L. Bean Pa’tridge Vest II
If you’re shopping for a classically styled upland vest that incorporates modern fabrics with a hunter-friendly design, you should take a look at L.L. Bean’s Pa’tridge II. By sewing in a layer of open mesh backed by a finer, foam-like polyester lining, the company’s clothing designers, who obviously know a bit about hunting, eliminated the major complaint about standard, full-coverage vests being too hot. This Air Mesh design wraps over the shoulders and across the yoke for maximum venting and a small measure of cushioning support under heavy loads. The rest of the vest is made from tightly woven, ripstop nylon. Even the buttons get heavy-duty treatment, attached via button tape versus standard thread. The fully lined game bag can be loaded from the front or back and, with zippers on the top and both sides, it opens flat if you want to scrub it down or empty it of seeds, feathers and other detritus. In the rear on the outside of the game bag are two water-bottle pockets—one on each hip—and a roomy central pocket that closes with a hook-and-loop fastener and a snap-down flap. The flaps over the front shell pockets have button closures at the back but are bar-tacked up front, perhaps to keep shells from falling out when bending over. (Personally, I would cut the threads and leave the buttons undone when hunting in order to improve access to shells.) Each shell pocket also contains a “hidden” pocket for electronics, a GPS or a cell phone. On the interior of the vest is a thin, angled “glasses” pocket and a zippered pocket for valuables. Tan with hunter-orange shoulder patches and rear mesh. Price: $69. A dark-tan-and-orange waxed-cotton version is available for $79.
L.L. Bean, 800-441-5713; www.llbean.com.
Under Armour Upland Prey Game Vest
Not unlike Bean’s vest, the offering from performance pro Under Armour in its new Upland Prey line features the classic vest silhouette and styling. This no-frills design is somewhat surprising, as Under Armour is better known for pushing the envelope in terms of both fit and function for the outdoor market. Maybe by going retro with the Upland Prey vest, UA is playing to the everything-old-is-new-again vibe. Whatever the thought process behind the vest’s creation, I will say it is comfortably cut. It would be an ideal choice for the minimalist upland hunter who neither needs nor wants a lot of frills. The clean front of the Upland Prey vest offers four snap-close pockets, each of which is streamlined. Even the two shell pockets give just enough expansion so as not to be baggy or obtrusive. Above those, two slim pockets are sized for a wallet or cell phone. I love the oversize front opening that allows easy access to the rear, lined game bag, which also can be loaded from the side or back. One unique design feature is a zipper running down the length of the center of the back, making bird removal and game-bag cleaning quick and simple. Made from 100-percent cotton with nylon overlays, the vest has a zippered front and comes in tan with hunter-orange shoulders and accents. Price: $99.
Under Armour, 888-727-6687; www.underarmour.com.
WingWorks Ballistic Upland Vest
Of all the great vests featured here, the WingWorks is my new favorite. Seemingly bombproof in construction, this strap-style vest/pack is sure to stand up to the wear and tear I put on my gear. Born of the hardscrabble chukar mountains and the high, dry prairies known to sharptail and Hungarian partridge hunters, the WingWorks vest features tough Ballistic nylon and cotton webbing with durable hypalon (a type of rubber) accents and heavy-grade hardware. (A Cordura model is available for $20 less.) The full, four-inch-wide waistbelt—similar to those found on backpacks—rides on the hips to take the weight of shells, birds, water and whatever else you’re carrying off of your back for less physical stress and more comfort. Hunters running multiple or big-running dogs in the early season will appreciate the amount of water this vest can pack, thanks to two pockets on the belt that hold 32-ounce bottles (included) and a third mesh pocket in the bloodproof rear pouch that accommodates a 54-ounce bottle (sold separately). Each front pocket is extra deep and has a hook-and-loop-secured flap that can be tucked inside the pocket for easier access to shells or other necessities. Additional pockets include one large and two small zippered pockets on the exterior of the game bag, and pockets for incidentals or a transmitter on the outsides of the shell pockets. There is a rear tie-down for extra clothing, fleece lining on the shoulder yolk and belt interior for added comfort, and plastic buckles that won’t scratch gunstocks. WingWorks vests are infinitely adjustable and adaptable to just about any bird hunting situation, and the company does offer customizable options. (The Website also has excellent tips regarding what items to carry afield and how.) Available in plain khaki and khaki with hunter orange. Price: $199.
WingWorks, 208-788-0729; www.wingworks.biz.
David Draper is Shooting Sportsman’s Field Gear Editor.
- By: David Draper