11. Upland Vests Reviewed

posted Feb 13, 2016, 1:06 PM by Dan Riedl   [ updated Feb 13, 2016, 1:45 PM ]
Ultra-short TL;DR version: The Tenzing BV16 (5/5) is the pack vest I kept (and it's awesome) but I probably would have preferred the LL Bean Technical pack (also 5/5) if I were 6'1" or shorter.  The Browning Bird’n Lite Pheasants Forever Strap Vest (3/5) is old and can't keep up with the times.  The Badlands Upland Bird Vest (2/5) is so modern it hurts.  

My Brittanys and I cover a lot of miles chasing grouse, woodcock, quail and pheasant.  After my dogs, I count my gun, boots and vest as my most important pieces of equipment.  When my beloved Columbia vest needed to be replaced after 10+ years of quality service, I spent a lot of time researching replacements and purchased the top four to compare. They include the Tenzing BV16, the Badlands Upland Bird Vest, the Browning Bird'n Lite Strap Vest and the L.L. Bean Technical Upland Vest Pack.  I tested them all with full loads of shells, weights, a water bladder and my Garmin Alpha.


Speaking of my Garmin, switching to a pack style vest left me concerned about how I was going to carry my Alpha.  With my old vest, I had a big slash pocket in front to stick my Garmin in and a plastic loop to clip it to.  There's no such pocket with a strap vest and I use my Garmin too much to store it in a closed pocket.  Thankfully, Garmin has me covered.  
The Garmin Backpack Tether $19.99 (5/5) attaches securely to your pack's shoulder strap with velcro loops.  It has a large velcro face and a matching velcro clip that snaps into the back of your Alpha.  I know it sounds weird and I didn't expect to like it but it really works.  Your handheld is always right where you want it, you can grab it without looking and slap it back in place without a second thought.  I replaced the string tether with a retractable cord attached directly to my vest.  That way, even if the entire thing comes off my vest while I'm busting through cattails, I'll still have my Garmin.   


Tenzing BV16   $150

Rating 5/5 Alders

The Tenzing BV16 is the pack vest I kept and it's pretty awesome.  This vest is extremely comfortable, lightweight, and is well-constructed from quality materials.  It has an integrated pouch for a hydration bladder and enough room for birds and gear.  The bird pouch isn't all that big but can be loaded from the front and will hold 2-3 pheasants.  The pack has load adjusting straps that keep everything close to your back and large hip pockets for shells or other gear you need to keep close at hand.  The pockets close securely with velcro.  I wasn't sure I wanted velcro pockets here but after trying the snap pockets on the Browning vest and the magnetic closure on the Badlands vest, velcro is clearly the way to go.  The radio pouches on the front of the hip pockets look handy but aren't big enough for a Garmin Alpha and I wouldn't trust any of my gear in them.  Similarly, the outermost pocket on the back isn't really necessary and is held in place with elastic string that seems likely to hang up in brush or barbed wire.  
So why is this the vest I'm keeping?  This vest set itself apart by being the "tallest" of the bunch.  The pack comes in two sizes and has a second set of loops for the hip belt that allows it to get 3" longer than the next tallest pack.  This made it the most comfortable on my 6'4" frame.  If I were a few inches shorter, I'd probably have gone with the L.L. Bean vest and their lifetime satisfaction guarantee.  This vest carries just a two year warranty.  Assuming it holds up, this vest and I will spend many miles together.




Rating 5/5 Alders

This vest is extremely well thought out and constructed and would have been my top pick if I weren't 6'4". It's not that it didn't fit me, but the Tenzing can be adjusted a few inches longer than this vest and ultimately won out because it fit my tall frame a bit better.

The Tenzing and LL Bean vests are very similar, but the Tenzing has a second set of loops for the hip strap, allowing you to adjust it for long frames like mine. The LL Bean vest's hip strap is integrated and has more padding but can't be moved down.

As for the specifics of this vest, the materials and craftsmanship are top notch. The "radio pouches" that hang on the shoulder straps are thankfully removable because they get in the way even on your non-dominant side. The hip pouches are well constructed and keep their shape even when empty but I'd prefer they were a bit longer and hugged closer to the hip strap. They're pretty small with only room for about 12 shells in each.  I prefer to have room for a full box of shells on each side so I can keep one side empty for hulls.  This vest has a very large game pouch (I'd guess you could get five or six pheasants back there) that's easily loaded from the front and the pack has lots of pockets and room for other gear. Fully loaded, it gets pretty big and I would have appreciated a couple of load bearing straps to hold the game pouch closer to my back when it's not full. The straps you see in the picture only compress the pack portion, not the game pouch. This means the pack portion can hang low and flap around when the game pouch is empty.

These small nits aside, this is truly a five star product and I was a bit sad to pack it up and send it back.




Browning makes a lot of great upland clothing (and I wouldn't trade my Citori Lightning shotgun for anything), but the Browning Bird’n Lite Pheasants Forever Strap Vest feels old, tired and out of place next to the sleek, modern pack vests on the market.  The Browning made my short list because it's such a popular vest and is well reviewed elsewhere.  It looks the part with classic upland styling and plenty of bright blaze orange.  It boasts nice big front pockets that hold a box of shells easily while not sticking out too far from the hip belt.   Unfortunately, the fun ends there.  This vest has way too many straps which makes it confusing to put on and adjust.  If you've tried on any of the other vests on this list, you'll immediately bemoan the lack of any padding or internal frame to help distribute the load to your hips.  No matter how many straps you sew on a vest, they can't make up for the lack of a weight distribution system and this pack really doesn't feel good once you load it down.  Unlike the other vests on this list, the Browning lacks a water bladder pocket which should be standard issue in this day and age.   The vest is made of a cotton material that feels too soft and will undoubtedly pick up burrs and prickers.  In short, it didn't take me long to determine that this isn't the vest for me.  Browning has one of the best names in the business but needs to get with the times and develop a modern pack vest with new materials, a water bladder pocket and a weight distribution system.  




Rating 2/5 Alders

The Badlands Upland Bird Vest is a backpack first and a bird vest second.  That's not a bad thing by itself but there are lots of reasons this pack won't be joining me in the field.  I'll start by admitting that I really, really wanted this to be the pack I ended up with.  Yes, it's the most expensive of the batch but it's so cool.  Plus, it's named Badlands.  Like bad ass, but for upland hunters.  This pack is made for people like me.  People who want everything to be new and improved, the latest and greatest.  Everything about this pack says Look at me!  I'm new!  Different!  Technology!  This isn't your grandfather's Filson tin cloth bird belt.  You won't see any upland styling conventions here.  It's modern, damn you, MODERN!  Unfortunately, for all my love of modernity, there's at least one styling convention that all upland vest makers should know to follow.  Color.  One color in particular.  Orange.  And not just any orange but Blaze Orange.  Somehow, and I'm really confused by how, the fine folks at Badlands missed the memo on this one.  The pack is admittedly kind of orange but it's a Texas burnt orange and there's no way you (or the fish and wildlife officer who stops you - and they will stop you) will confuse this color for blaze orange.  When shopping for a pack vest I assumed that anyone making an upland vest would know the importance of blaze orange.  I assumed that the pictures of this pack I saw must just not reflect the true color.  Don't assume things.  

Sadly, a change of color alone wouldn't fix this pack for me.  The other pack vests on this list have two sizes - M/L and XL/XXL.  Badlands considers this pack a one size fits all product.  It's not.  On me, for example, it fits like one of those string purses my niece wears at the mall.  I would guess a thin, 5'8" man would find this vest extremely comfortable.  At 6'4", however, the hip belt hit me right in the middle of the gut.  Putting a heavy load in the vest made me think about putting a load in my pants.  

One of the new innovations introduced by this vest is the magnetic closure hip pockets.  And they are cool.  At first.  Indoors.  But then you use them like you would in the field.  The tops of the hip pockets contain two rope-like strips of magnet.  When they get close, they snap shut like a coin purse.  They promised to be both quiet and convenient and I expected to really like them over old technology like snaps (see Browning) or velcro (see L.L. Bean or Tenzing).  In the end, though, they don't really work all that well.  If you stuff the pockets full of shells or mash the pocket against something, they're prone to coming open on their own.  To address this problem, Badland put a plastic clip at the top to hold them shut.  This produces two problems.  First, even with the clip closed the pocket can open enough for a shell to fall out and second, the clip makes the simple process of opening a pocket a two-step process.  To add insult to injury, the clip is small and difficult to operate with gloves on.  

I'll admit that I didn't realize how much I disliked this pack vest until I wrote this review.  And perhaps I was a bit unfair.  There are undoubtedly people who would be very happy with this vest.  If you're short, skinny, don't hunt in a state with a blaze orange requirement, think gloves are for sissies and only hunt in wide open prairie where you never need to climb over or under anything, you would probably love this vest.  I'm none of those things.  Therefore, this vest is on its way back to the Badlands from whence it came.