What Type of Fly Fishing Pack is Right for You?

Fly Fishing expert Andrew Grandemange highlights everything you need to know about choosing a fly fishing pack.

Photo by Andrew Grandemange

At one time, deciding how to carry all your fishing gear while on the water was an easy choice, use a vest. Things have changed. Now there are many different types of fly fishing packs on the market, the most common being chest packs, sling packs, hip/waist/lumbar packs, and backpacks. Most major fly fishing companies (Fishpond, Orvis, Simms, Umpqua, and Patagonia) all produce packs in these styles. Using a fly fishing vest is still an option and many fly fishermen still prefer to go this route. I use a fly fishing pack due to the versatility of each style to match my fishing needs. Let me explain.

My first pack was Fishpond’s San Juan Chest Pack. It’s a small chest pack (2.95L, 180in3) that has enough room for a small box of flies, forceps, nippers, a spool or two of tippet, and a d-loop on the back of the neck strap to attach a net. It’s lightweight and allows you to spend a couple hours on the water with a minimal amount of gear. I also own the Orvis Safe Passage Chip Pack. It’s a larger chest pack (5.11L, 312in3 ). This pack allows me to carry all the gear from the Fishpond pack, as well as another fly box or two (depending on size). I also attach a tippet holder to the side of the pack to hold a wide variety of tippets. This setup allows me to carry all the gear I need for dry fly fishing and nymphing while out on the local tailwaters. Both packs have attachment points on the pack for zingers and other gear clips, which is nice for items I want to access quickly. I can also extend the neck strap, on both packs, so that the pack hangs at my side, out of the way. This is great for when I am actively fishing and don’t expect to make adjustments to my fly fishing setup anytime soon.

My latest purchase was the Simms Waypoints Sling Pack in the large size (17L, 1037.4in3). This pack allows me to carry everything I need for a long day on the water, including a bunch of fly boxes, lunch, a water bottle, rain jacket, multiple spools of tippet, split shot, indicators, and more. Since it is a sling pack, the main compartment is on my back, out of the way. I really like this pack and use it 90% of the time, but I miss the convenience of having the gear I need the most throughout the day easily accessible on my chest. To address this need, I will likely be purchasing Umpqua’s Overlook ZS2 500 Chest Pack in the near future. It is a large 500in3 (8.2L) chest pack but also comes with a 550in3 (9L) back compartment. This is the best setup I have found that matches how I like to carry my gear.

But what about you? What type of pack should you buy and what features should your fishing pack have? That all depends on how you, the angler, fishes and how much gear is needed. Is one style of pack better than the other? No. It’s a personal decision based on how you want to store your fishing gear. Let’s go over what to look for in a fly fishing pack and take a look at each type of fishing pack.

What to Look for in a Fly Fishing Pack

  1. Capacity: Does the pack provide enough room for you to carry all the gear you want or need to bring with you?
  2. Organization: Are there pockets, dividers, or areas for gear-specific storage?
  3. Gear Attachment Points: Does it have d-rings, loops, or other systems to attach fishing accessories?
  4. Lashing points: Are there adjustable straps for lashing a jacket or spare rod to the side, if needed?
  5. Hydration: Can you carry your beverage of choice with you?
  6. Waterproof: Will the pack protect your gear (phone, camera) from getting damaged if it gets wet. Does it have waterproof material and waterproof zippers?
  7. Comfortable: How does the pack sit on your body and will it be comfortable to wear all day.

Types of Fly Fishing Packs

Sling Pack

Sling pack

A sling pack is carried over one shoulder with the main storage compartments on your back. There is usually another strap that runs under your arm, which connects to the strap on the front and the main compartment on your back. This prevents the pack from sliding around while wading, casting, and landing your fish. If you don't want the strap to sit on your casting shoulder, look into getting a pack with an ambidextrous strap. This type of strap can be adjusted so the pack can be carried on either shoulder.

Sling packs also come in various sizes. Some packs have large compartments that provide plenty of storage space. These are great for storing multiple medium to large fly boxes, a jacket, a water bottle, and anything else you need. Other sling packs have longer, shallow compartments on the back that provide space for a fly box or two. These are great for outings where you don’t need all your fly fishing gear. On the shoulder strap, you will often find attachment points or even a small pouch for items like nippers or forceps.

The benefit of a sling pack is that all your gear is stored behind you, out of the way. There may also be a section inside the main compartment to store a water bottle. Some have designated a water bottle holder on the outside of the pack so it doesn't take up space inside the pack. When you need to access your gear, you swing the pack around to the front. Once you make the changes to your fly fishing setup, you zip up the pack and slide it back out of the way and resume fishing.

Pros

  • Your gear is out of the way. There is no risk of your fly line getting caught on the pack.
  • You don’t need to remove your pack to access the gear like you do with a backpack.
  • It sits high on your back so you can wade deeper without the pack getting wet.
  • It typically has a large capacity.

Cons

  • It can cause shoulder fatigue, especially if the strap rests on your casting shoulder.
  • Not all models have a good spot to attach a net.
  • You can’t access gear in the pack and gear on the strap as the same time.
  • It can only be worn on the back.
  • It can get tiresome and annoying to slide the pack around each time you need to change a fly.

Hip/Waist/Lumbar Pack

A hip pack sitting on rocks

This is the fly fishing version of the fanny pack, but much cooler. You may see them marketed as a hip pack, waist pack, or lumbar pack. Sizing wise, it holds somewhere in between what a standard-sized chest pack holds and what a sling pack holds. A hip pack sits around your hip/waist/lumbar. This type of pack tends to provide the most comfort when out on the water all day. Many models come with a padded shoulder strap to help support the pack when full and sagging. All the compartments are built onto the waist belt, with the main compartment on the back or side.

The strap itself is usually wide and adjustable, similar to the lumbar strap on a hiking pack. Depending on the brand, you may have a modular strap that allows you to customize what type of compartments or accessory holders are on the pack, such as a floatant holder or water bottle holder.

A hip pack should be waterproof since it’s worn much closer to the water and risks getting wet. To access the compartments on the back, you can either reach around or just spin the pack around until the compartment is in the front. Many people like this style of pack because you can also use another type of pack at the same time.

Pros

  • Most are very comfortable.
  • Your upper body is free to move without any restriction to your casting arm.
  • It is easy to slide the pack around to access compartments.
  • They can be worn with the main compartment on the back, front, or side.

Cons

  • It will get wet if wading deep.
  • If larger compartments are on the side, you risk getting your line tangled on them.
  • It will be tough to carry a net.
  • Heavy-duty zippers on waterproof packs can be difficult to open.
  • They typically have limited storage space.

Chest Pack

A chest pack

The chest pack sits on the center of your chest. Chest packs are great for the person who wants all their fly fishing gear right in front of them, at all times. Depending on the brand, it may have a strap that wraps around the neck or a harness over both shoulders. There is usually a strap that wraps around your chest so that the pack is secured to you and won’t move. Some models also have a pack that attaches to the back for additional storage and better weight distribution.

The main compartments on chest packs can be small, only capable of holding one fly box and minimal accessories, or they can be larger in size comparable to the main compartment on a hip pack. A net can often be attached to a loop or clip on the neck strap.

Pros

  • It can provide better weight distribution than a vest.
  • Everything you need is right in front of you.
  • Small minimalist sizes or large options are available.
  • Some models can attach to the front of a backpack for a hybrid pack.
  • Some models allow you to extend the neck strap so the pack can be worn near the waist, at your side.

Cons

  • It can get heavy around the neck or shoulders if not balanced in the back.
  • A large pack or external attachments may get in the way while casting.
  • It is hard to see your feet and the water directly below the pack when wading.
  • There are not as many dedicated compartments in the front compared to a vest.

Backpack

A fly fishing backpack

A backpack is another option for those days when you need a lot of gear. These packs will provide the largest capacity and may also include a compartment for a hydration bladder. If you know you will be hiking in order to get to the lake or river, a backpack may provide you with enough space to carry your waders and boots. Backpacks designed for fishing often come with lashing points to secure a fly rod to the side. Backpacks will also allow you to carry multiple large fly boxes. You can combine a backpack with a lanyard, chest packs, or even a hip pack if you want more gear specific pockets.

Pros

  • All your gear is out of the way while fishing.
  • There is plenty of space.
  • It sits high on your back, away from water.
  • It’s ideal for fishing while hiking.
  • It can combine with other packs to create a hybrid style.

Cons

  • You must take off the pack to access gear.
  • There’s potential for a lot of unused space.
  • There are not as many compartments, and often only one large compartment.

Other Non-Pack Options

Fly Fishing Vest

A fly fishing vest

This is the old-school cool way of carrying your fly fishing gear. A fly fishing vest has multiple pockets on the front to store all your fishing gear. To combat summer heat, some vests have mesh sides and/or a mesh back. Modern fly fishing vests have solid compartments on the front to help protect your gear better than the cloth pockets found on the classic-style vest. On the back of the vest, you may find an attachment point at the top to hold a net. Many vests also have a large pouch on the back to hold a rain jacket or water bottle.

Pros

  • It’s a classic, this style has been used for decades.
  • It provides easy access to everything you need.
  • There are a lot of different styles with varying amounts of pockets or compartments.

Cons

  • It can be too hot to wear in the summer.
  • There’s limited space to carry bulk items like a lot of fly boxes.
  • It can get heavy and cause shoulder fatigue due to all the weight in the front.
  • With too many pockets, you might forget where something is stored.

Lanyard

It’s a fancy necklace with some padding on the neck and clips around the front to hold only the essential gear. This type of setup could easily be added when using a hip pack or backpack, or for those days on the water when all you need is a few items.

Pros

  • It’s easy to add when using other types of packs.
  • You only carry what you absolutely need.
  • It’s lightweight.

Cons

  • There’s a very minimal amount of space to attach items.
  • It can cause strain on your neck.
  • It creates a lot of dangling gear for fly line to get caught on.
  • There’s no place to store a net or water bottle.

As you can see there are a lot of carrying options available to fly fishers. This is not an exhaustive breakdown of each style but hopefully I have provided enough information to help you narrow down what type of fly fishing pack you should buy. Through trial and error, I’ve learned there is no perfect pack that works in every situation. When I’m fishing in alpine lakes and streams, I’ll use a large hydration backpack so I can carry other non-fishing items in case of emergencies. For all other times on the water, I prefer using a chest or sling pack. You may find a hip pack fits your style of fishing the best or maybe some hybrid combination of two packs. Let’s connect and I’ll help you find the best pack for your angling needs.

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Written By
I grew up in Washington state and starting fly fishing in 2003 after graduating high school. I started tying flies shortly after. Many of those flies can be found in trees along the rivers I frequented back then. I like to think that I am a better fisherman now, as more flies end up in the mouths of...

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