How To: Packs And Pistols


Wearing a pack is an integral part of work or play outdoors, but packs create a number of challenges for carrying a handgun.

Carrying a firearm is a topic of constant discussion here at GUNS Magazine. Every day brings questions for our audience about this or that holster, which carry technique is best, or should I throw my shoulder holster away. Sorry, the answer is yes to the last question.

But, of all the situations where I’ve carried a gun over the last 40 years, one of the most challenging is when wearing a pack.

Packs are an integral part of an adventurous life. Whether you’re going off for an afternoon of fishing or headed off to war, carrying stuff on your back is necessary for safety and/or comfort. Whether we’re talking about an aluminum pack frame carrying a “cape and quarters” or simply your off-trail lunch, having a load on your back causes certain difficulties when trying to add a handgun to the mix.


As a matter of qualifications, I’m proud to publicly admit I’m a veteran backpacker, aside from all my other avocations. It is funny when I bring this up because I don’t fit the stereotypical mold of modern long-distance hikers. Most people visualize hardcore backpackers as people named Ron Manbun and Summer Snowflake; he, a ski-instructor and part-time Door Dash delivery driver, and she, a “Healing through feminist dance therapy” instructor in Sedona, Arizona. There they go up the trail — young, lithe, athletic and clad in the latest fair-wage conflict-free low-carbon 90%-post-consumer-waste-recycled low-fat “technical” jacket, retailing for $898 apiece.

Yeah, there are a lot of those, but I also found there are many normal folks like me on the trail. Well, maybe not “normal,” but you get the idea. Anyway, if you haven’t tried backpacking or long-distance hiking, I believe it is one of the best ways to develop and practice your emergency skills. After you’ve had Mother Nature attempt to kill you several times, you learn what works and doesn’t in a limited-resource situation. Plus, you learn to appreciate the little things in life, like toilets and getting a bedtime snack without having to re-hang a bear bag.

Brent in his younger days on the trail. You can see between his hands a camouflage pouch.
It didn’t carry water, it carried something equally important — a .40 cal semiauto.

Day Pack

Most of the time, we find ourselves saddled with a “day pack,” something about the size of a bread basket and made to carry all the flotsam necessary for short-term escapades. I use day packs everywhere, from air travel to bushwacking in the mountains to carrying shooting gear at the range. The great thing is most day packs only have two shoulder straps.

If you haven’t worked it out, having two straps doesn’t really impact carrying a firearm unless you plan on using a shoulder holster. As I’ve already made it clear, I’m not a fan of shoulder rigs except in certain limited circumstances, this shouldn’t present a problem.

Just for the sake of argument — and I will get argumentative letters — the reasons I don’t like shoulder rigs are because:

1) You end up pointing your gun at one or more parts of your body as a matter of course.

2) They’re not as practical or comfortable as you would think.

3) They are darn near useless if you use the sternum strap on your shoulder straps

With a day pack, most belt rigs work just fine. I’ve also tried things such as holsters that attach to the pack straps and even binocular cases that attach to the straps or hang in front of your chest. They work, but just barely. Personally, I find stuff swinging around in front of me very uncomfortable.

This also goes for the current craze of carrying a fanny pack — oops, sorry, “Belt Bag” — slung diagonally across your chest. There are much better ways to skin this particular opossum, but if you want to look like one of the cool kids, be my guest. I prefer practicality and comfort. Using a fanny or belt pack does work pretty good with a day pack when used in the designed manner.

Big Packs

If you’ve got loads of cargo to carry or many miles to go, you’re probably wearing a full-size backpack, either an internal or external frame. Most of these use a padded hip belt to transfer the load to your hips and legs rather than your lower back. Properly fitted, it is amazing how well it works. Unfortunately, it makes carrying a handgun a major pain.

Forget using an inside-the-waistband or external belt holster with a pack belt. Yep, I’ve (stupidly) tried, and it’s as unpleasant as it sounds, with the added extra bonus of it being nearly impossible to access your firearm. You’ll want to come up with a different plan.

One time, I built a pouch to attach to the pack waist belt, which appeared to be carrying a flexible water bottle. It was actually a concealed holster for my .40 cal compact semi-auto. It made drawing the pistol very quick, but the thing I didn’t like was how the waist belt/pouch/gun began swinging wildly as soon as I unbuckled at a rest stop.

After countless ideas and attempts, I’ve finally realized the middle of the chest is the only place I can keep a pistol and have it both comfortable and easy to access.

In the concealed-carry category, I am now partial to the Hill People Gear (HPG) Original Kit Bag. This is a military-grade zippered pouch set up to wear across your sternum using a robust back harness connected via webbing. They’re made so you can run, scramble, fight or whatever, but keep the pouch in place. Though I can’t personally vouch for it, I think it would work equally well for a woman, provided she wasn’t exceptionally busty.

The Kit Bag — and all the various HPG models — work well at keeping a gun protected, concealed and easily accessible. It also works well if you’re wearing waders or snow pants. As a bonus, the bags keep your phone, wallet and other stuff handy. Best of all, most of their products don’t appear excessively “tactical,” so you can wear them in polite company and not upset Mr. Manbun.

The Hill People Gear kit bag, Brent’s favorite method for carrying a handgun during outdoor adventure.
It is secure, quick to access yet doesn’t look too tactical!

Bear Trouble

Finally, if you have a possibility of needing a firearm RIGHT NOW, a chest holster is the only reasonable choice when wearing a pack. I’m thinking of hunting, fishing or hiking in grizzly-infested territory where having a handgun ready within a second or two can literally mean life or death. Chest rigs are also convenient if you’re hanging around hunting camp or other such places where worries about concealed carry are non-existent.

Fortunately, I’ve not run across many cheap or poorly-made chest rigs. I’m sure they exist, but most holster-makers who bother to tap into this small niche market don’t bother competing on price. They focus on quality. If you already have a good pancake holster you trust, another option is the Simply Rugged Holsters “Chesty Puller” rigging system to carry the holster in the center of your chest.

Simply Rugged Holsters makes a “Chesty Puller” harness system
which takes your favorite pancake holster and makes it a chest rig out of it.

The Alien Gear Cloak Chest Holster is a good example of a quick-access chest rig for times
when you don’t need to concern yourself with concealed carry or there are large toothy critters close at hand!

Whatever holster you choose in these situations, make sure your retention system is effective but not so effective you can’t access the pistol quickly with either hand in an emergency. If I needed to wear a chest holster for protection, I’d stay away from a flap-type holster. They’re great for gun protection when carrying a hunting handgun but are very ‘fumbly’ when something toothy is bearing down on you from only a few feet away.

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