Front-and-Center Packs

Front-and-Center Packs

What you need to know before picking a fly-fishing chest pack.

  • By: Ted Leeson

This one's a first for me. For an assortment of reasons, over the 20-plus years of gear reporting I've done for FR&R, I've never reviewed chest packs in these pages.

I field-tested a number of them when the product idea was new and most were unsatisfactory on many counts, not the least of which were puzzlingly overdedicated and often useless storage features and complicated, uncomfortable harnesses. In time, designs improved, and suddenly everyone with a sewing machine and a few spare yards of Cordura was pounding out packs, knocking off each other's products, flooding the market with so many chest packs that anything remotely approaching a comprehensive review article was impossible.

But two things happened. The market weaklings have been weeded out, and the originally small contingent of chest-pack users has grown. Younger anglers in particular seem to be eschewing fly vests, partly I think as a matter of personal style, and partly for some defensible practical reasons. I confined my researches to the "classic" version of the chest pack, with a single, front-riding pack (that is, no rear cargo pouch), but I omitted the ultra-compact, single-fly-box models, which are more specialized. When a product allowed for two or more configurations-as chest pack, lumbar pack or creel-style shoulder bag-I tested them out only in chest and shoulder modes. Fanny packs are, to me, a rather different animal.

Finally, to give some idea of pack capacity, I used the widely available medium-size fly boxes-about 7-by-4-by-1. It's only a rough idea of what you can fit in the pack, but it's better than nothing. We cover ten packs including two exclusivley for the Web.

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Chest Packs
Make: Cabella
Model: Low-Profile Chest Vest
Price: $24.95
Online Bonus
Make: fishpond
Model: Blue River
Price: $69.00
Make: fishpond
Model: Windwalker
Price: $79.00
Make: L.L. Beans
Model: Switch Pack
Price: $25.00
Make: Loon
Model:Fishing System
Price: $49.95
Make: Patagonia
Model: Hip Chest Pack
Price: $68.00
Online Bonus
Make: William Joseph
Model: Old School
Price: $39.00
Make: William Joseph
Model: Solo
Price: $49.00
Make: Willaim Joseph
Model: Access
Price: $69.00
The Sling Thing
Make: Orvis
Model: Safe Passage Sling Pack
Price: $49.00
Make: Patagonia
Model: Double Haul
Price: $125.00
Make: William Joseph
Model: Equinox
Price: $89.00
Dry Storage
Make: Simms
Model: Drey Creek Backpack
Make: Simms
Model: Dry Creek Chest/Hip Pack

The Low Down: Vests Versus Packs

A lifelong vest wearer, I used
chest packs for about six months.
Here's how I think they stack up against fishing vests:

Comfort: A draw. Both are comfortable when lightly packed and are literally a pain in the neck when loaded full.
Capacity: Vests just hold more, especially when raingear is involved.
Organization: Again, vests; lots of pockets keep things sorted out; the interior sleeves in chest-pack compartments are sometimes less useful than they seem, as fly boxes obstruct access.
Ventilation: Chest packs prevail, hands down.
Mobility: Chest packs get the nod, whether casting, rowing or bushwhacking.
Convenience: To my enduring surprise, I found accessing fly boxes and even smaller items stored in exterior pockets to be noticeably quicker and easier on chest packs, particularly under rain gear (however, see below).
Bulk: Not how much, but where. It's difficult to see your feet when wearing a chest pack, which can be disconcerting when you wade. You do adjust, but it can still be an occasional problem. And a chest pack may not fit handily, or even at all, under a rain jacket-depends on the pack and the jacket.
Unexpected Discovery: Some chest packs can be worn creel-style, with a strap over one shoulder, another around the waist, and the bag on your hip. I found this configuration surprisingly practical once you can get past the vaguely unisex, Euro look of it. You can slide the pack to the front of your body to access contents, and then slide it to the small of your back where it's out the way for excellent arm and torso mobility. It's cooler in the heat and, to me, generally more comfortable than either chest pack or vest. The main limitations are in deep wading, which can soak the bag, and in foul weather; the bag may not fit under a rain jacket, and if it does, getting to it is cumbersome.
-Ted Leeson

Cabela's Low-Profile Chest Vest
The Basic Idea: One main compartment; two interior sleeves; two exterior mesh sleeves, one with two tippet grommets; rear security pocket. Padded back and elastic-strap harness. 16.1 oz.; $24.95.
What Works: Vertical profile for good arm mobility. Light-weight. Main compartment holds two fly boxes; two stacked interior sleeves hold accessories. Exterior sleeves are handy for often-used items. Harness stretches as you move; close-fitting but comfortable. Security pocket on back is handy for keys, wallet and the like.

Cause for Pause: Harness has no clips; you slip your arms and head through straps-cumbersome to get on-and four separate strap sliders make this tedious to adjust. Hook-and-loop closures are superfluous and inconvenient on already elasticized sleeve pockets. Lightly built.

The Upshot: The pack accepts large fly boxes, which makes better use of interior space. A very basic pack tending toward the minimal. Stretchy harness, light weight and compact size minimize interference when double-hauling and reaching for long casts-nice as well if you are rowing or paddling.

The Basic Idea: One large, one medium main pocket; one smaller drop-down; three interior sleeves. Padded back and neck strap. Creel-style conversion. 16.3 oz.; $79.
What Works: Vertical orientation gives excellent freedom for double-hauling and distance work. Surprising capacity-large pocket holds four fly boxes (or a light-weight rain jacket); medium holds one box. Clean exterior minimizes fly-line snag. Raised pads on back promote air circulation. Quality materials and construction.

Cause for Pause: The tall profile makes accessing deep interior sleeves difficult; low on convenient storage for smaller items, such as split shot. Neck strap lacks adjustability and buckle hardware rides a little uncomfortably on your clavicle. Sling conversion requires a second strap (supplied), so temporary on-stream conversion is cumbersome.

The Upshot: Tall, narrow design is best suited to larger fly boxes to better utilize interior space. And the range of arm motion afforded in fact make this a good choice for steelhead and saltwater use. Pleasing as a chest pack, but less so in sling mode.

The Basic Idea: Large and medium main pockets; one medium drop-down; seven interior and two exterior sleeves; flanking water-bottle pouches. Padded back and strap. Lumbar conversion. 26 oz.; $89.
What Works: Large capacity and versatility. Main pocket holds three fly boxes (or lightweight jacket); medium holds two; drop-down without insert holds another. Handy exterior sleeves. Horizontal orientation gives good access to contents. Lots of organizational flexibility. High quality.

Cause for Pause: The big profile is bulky even when partially loaded and can interfere with arm mobility. Neck strap lacks adequate adjustment to put pack high on chest. Exterior closures can catch fly line.

The Upshot: This is really set up as a lumbar pack that can be used in chest configuration, at which point a few features-water bottle pouches, tool loops on body strap-become impractical to use. Best for anglers seeking high pack volume who don't mind the bulk and weight in chest-pack mode, or those who'll take advantage of the versatility of the lumbar option.

L.L. Bean
The Basic Idea: One large drop-down compartment, one smaller compartment with tippet-management system, six interior sleeves, two pigtail retractors and a padded back. 10.6 oz.; $25.
What Works: The pack is very compact but still the drop-down (with foam removed) will hold two fly boxes with room to spare. Four tippet spools are held in a mesh sleeve inside the smaller front pocket, with tag ends fed through rubberized slots for exterior access-pull and clip; the pocket has additional room for smaller box or accessories. Efficient use of space, and light-weight.

Cause for Pause: The harness is designed around the SwitchPack Component System (a daypack-centered modular system) than for independent use; the neck-strap buckle rubs against the neck; the body strap fasteners are inconvenient to use. Lightly constructed.

The Upshot: A very basic chest pack with good capacity for its size; the tippet-dispenser feature works reasonably well and is convenient. Low profile, light and relatively inexpensive, it's a good choice for those who tend to minimalism or use a chest pack only occasionally.

Fishing System
The Basic Idea: Drop-down platform with hook-and-loop-attached fly box; one exterior fly-box pocket; eight interior sleeves. Includes one adjustable-compartment fly box; Biostrike indicator putty, Deep Soft Weight putty, Aquel dry-fly flotant in clip-on holder, Easy Dry desiccant, clip-on leader straightener, water bottle in detachable holster, and nippers and hemostats on zingers. Lumbar and creel-style conversion; $49.95.

What Works: Drop-down platform is handy and with a little ingenuity can be modified to hold a second fly box. Contents generally easy to access since platform folds down like the cover of a book. Simple design and usefully chosen accessories.

Cause for Pause: The elastic neck strap is comfortable, but overly stretchy, allowing the loaded pack to bounce a bit when walking. Platform tends to drop below the horizontal when the piggybacked exterior pocket is loaded.

The Upshot: You're buying into a "system" here, complete with fly-fishing danglies and accessories that you may or may not want. This fairly low-volume, fully outfitted pack would make a good choice for a beginning angler-just add flies and you're good to go-or for a special-purpose, minimalist pack, say for small-stream fishing or hitting a bluegill pond after work.

Hip Chest Pack
The Basic Idea: One main compartment, eight interior sleeves; two full-width, external zip compartments; water-bottle pouch; elastic neck strap; lumbar conversion. 14.2 oz.; $68.

What Works: Horizontal orientation rides high for deep wading without compromising arm mobility. Compact design has deceptive capacity and will hold four fly boxes with room to spare. Excels in organizing smaller items in interior sleeves, and external zip compartments give ready access to often-used items. Water-resistant fabric and zippers are eminently sensible.

Cause for Pause: Elastic neck strap is inconvenient to adjust and while moderately comfortable, could be wider for better weight distribution when fully loaded.

The Upshot: A very good example of functional and versatile simplicity. Easy access to contents, especially on exterior compartments, and organizer sleeves makes this a natural for trout anglers who carry lots of small items and accessories, but large-fly-box capacity and deep-wading design are well suited to steelhead and striper fishing. Clean design doesn't snag fly line. A basic, highly practical design, nicely executed and surprisingly inexpensive for a Patagonia product.

William Joseph
The Basic Idea: A medium main pocket, a medium drop-down, a small drop-down with shock-corded tippet-spool holder, five interior sleeves, one exterior sleeve and a built-in zinger. Also a padded back and strap. 15.1 oz.; $49.

What Works: The devilishly clever one-piece harness allows you to slide the pack higher or lower on your chest while you're wearing it. Good capacity for compact size: main pocket holds two fly boxes; the drop-down, with foam removed, holds another. Tippet-spool pocket is reasonably practical. Vertical configuration for arm mobility; smooth, clean exterior minimizes line snag.

Cause for Pause: The drop-down (using the foam insert) and tippet-spool pocket waste some space. The elasticized exterior sleeve looks more useful than it is. Some exterior attachment points for clipping hemostats or mounting additional zingers would be nice.

The Upshot: Immensely practical for those who go moderately to minimally equipped. Semi-rigid, clamshell-style pockets, which I normally dislike for bulk and wasted space, help this pack hold its shape for easy access. Well-designed, basic storage here with a comfortable harness. Smartly engineered and nicely made.

William Joseph
The Basic Idea: Same pack unit as Solo. Between the back of the pack and your chest is an open-topped, mesh-sided expandable pocket, with top compression straps. Standard, not one-piece, harness. Padded back and strap. 17.7 oz.; $69.

What Works: Same as Solo. Mesh-sided pocket will, with effort, hold a very lightweight rain jacket, water bottle, snacks and the like.

Cause for Pause: Same as the solo. And the mesh-sided pocket is partially open on the sides-definitely not a place for smaller items. I find accessing this mesh pocket too cumbersome for commonly used items, and packing it with bulky or asymmetrical items can cause the pack to shift or sway.

The Upshot: The only reason to choose this pack over the Solo is for the large gear pocket-which is a pretty good reason if you want to bring ultra-light rain gear, lunch, a few beers or other such conveniences.

Web Exclusive: For bonus reviews of two more chest packs, go to Gear section.

Ted Leeson has been this magazine's gear reviewer for more than 20 years. His books include Jerusalem Creek and The Habit of Rivers. He lives in Oregon.

The Sling Thing

These bandolero-style, over-the-shoulder fly-fishing slings are a fairly new idea. Typically, they have both front and back compartments, and you access the rear pockets by unclipping the waist belt and spinning the sling over your shoulder. Generally speaking, front tackle-storage volume is lower than that of a high-volume chest pack, though the rear cargo compartment permits carrying rain gear, lunch, water and more, and it's easier to access than a vest-back pocket. The sling design takes load-bearing away from the neck, and I find them substantially more comfortable than conventional chest packs, with superb freedom of motion for casting. But, like many chest packs, they may not fit easily under a wading jacket; and because they nearly reach waist level on one side, your wading depth can be limited. Still, for comfort and mobility, I'd rank these higher than both vests and chest packs.

William Joseph Equinox
The chest-pack unit here is identical to the WJ Solo; the harness has two additional front pockets, each with a built-in retractor-and a large rear cargo pocket with two exterior zippered compartments. The padded harness is comfortable when snugged down securely, which is necessary to stabilize the pack and keep it from sagging forward. Even so, the weight of the front pack tends to pull it off center. And the waist strap could use more adjustability to fit thinner anglers. Even so, this is a highly practical pack, and the generous rear compartment is a real plus for those who carry raingear or other bulky items. A good choice for those who appreciate the convenience of a chest pack but need more capacity. Very nicely made. Rigged for hydration bladder (not included). For left shoulder only, $89.

Orvis Safe Passage Sling Pack
The front tackle pack holds two fly boxes and rides piggyback atop a large cargo compartment with interior organizer sleeves. A small, detachable tackle pocket clips to the front tackle pack or to the rear of the sling strap. The tackle pack is flanked by a zinger sleeve and pliers holster.

This sling pack is designed to carry all your gear in front, which is highly convenient, but the triple-stacked compartments are not without drawbacks. A fully loaded cargo pocket and tackle pack produce as much bulk up front as a large chest pack, particularly when using the clip-on tackle pocket, which I found too loosely mounted and of limited benefit. The virtue of the design, however-and a substantial one-is that you can rotate the unit around your waist so that the pack rides on your back for unencumbered casting and unobstructed downward vision. This highly comfortable and generally practical design comes at a surprisingly modest cost-inexpensive enough to buy one for a particular purpose-hiking the boonies or steelheading-where you might prefer the advantages of a sling. A good value. $49,

Patagonia Double Haul
One main pocket holds three fly boxes, and four internal sleeves organize accessories. A zippered exterior pocket has enough volume to keep frequently used items conveniently accessible, and a piggybacked stretch sleeve holds small stuff. The rear compartment is large enough for a heavyweight rain jacket, and interior stretch sleeves help organize contents.

This modular design converts to a lumbar pack, conventional front chest pack and creel-style bag. Like much multipurpose gear, this pack entails compromises-some inconvenience in the waist strap and slide-around access to the rear cargo compartment. But once you're buckled in, it conforms closely to your body for comfort and non-shifting security; gear is positioned at an easily available level on your chest, and smaller items in particular are nicely at hand. This is a perfectly serviceable and quite nicely made sling pack but, given the price, I think it best serves anglers who will actually take advantage of the multiple configurations. $125.
-Ted Leeson

Dry Storage
Dry Creek Chest/Hip Pack
If you want a fully waterproof chest pack, this is the only game in town. Check out the review "Vest Packs" in the July/October 2007 issue of FR&R. In it, Ted Leeson wrote: "The only one of its kind, the obvious choice for anglers (and photographers) whose top priority is keeping gear dry. This is a particularly useful item for destination travel that involves open boats or hike-in fishing in rainy climates since both items are relatively low bulk and can be packed in your luggage for use on arrival."

About the Simms Dry Creek Backpack, Ted wrote: "Clearly a specialty item designed for one overriding purpose-to keep gear dry-which it does handsomely. Anatomically contoured straps, criss-cross sternum straps, and small lumbar pad control the load."

William Joseph
Old School
The Basic Idea: Single main compartment with magnetic-closing flap top, one zip-closing exterior sleeve, one zip-closing exterior pocket with sleeve divisions, two elastic zinger cords. Padded back and strap. 14.6 oz.; $39.

What Works: Vertical orientation promotes good arm mobility and offers more capacity than it seems-holds three fly boxes in a simple, compact design. Comfortable, uncomplicated harness nicely prevents pack from shifting. Convenient exterior pocket for smaller items.

Cause for Pause: The top opening is narrower than the main compartment; the pack will hold fly boxes wider than you can get in or out. Some space is wasted, and generally, access and vision into the pack are poor. Magnetic catch will not hold if pack is inverted. Front is only moderately clean and can snag fly line.

The Upshot: The tall narrow pack and a restricted top opening make an inconvenient combination, particularly since the non-adjustable neck strap holds the pack high on your chest. It's certainly useable, provided you stick with smaller fly boxes, and handsome in a retro sort of way, but hard-core users will quite probably find this one impractical.

Blue River Chest/Lumbar Pack
The Basic Idea: One main pocket; one full-width drop-down; one external sleeve and zip compartment covered with a buckle flap; one full-width external zip compartment; 10 interior sleeves. Padded back and neck strap. Lumbar and creel-style conversion.

What Works: Horizontal orientation makes efficient use of interior space-main pocket holds two fly boxes side-by-side, drop-down holds two more if foam is removed. Wide top zipper gives easy access. Full-width, zippered exterior pocket makes floatant, split shot, etc. quickly available. Reasonably comfortable harness with lots of adjustment range. Well made.

Cause for Pause: Front exterior compartments are covered by a buckling flap; open or closed, buckles can catch your fly line, and access is inconvenient. Used with foam inserts, the full-width drop-down consumes lots of bag volume for the number of flies it holds. Inconvenient access to some interior sleeves. Zipper pulls can snag fly line.

The Upshot: Aside from the buckling flap, easy access to contents is a strong point, and this fairly compact design holds a lot for its size; in fact, it's easy to overload to the point of neck discomfort. Solid, workmanlike utility, and very good quality. I liked this one even better in shoulder-bag mode; it's shallow enough to ride at rib-cage level but still allow for deeper wading. Low-friction harness makes it slide easily around your body. 23.8 oz.; $69.