Choosing the Best Fly Fishing Pack: Chest, Sling, or Something Else?Published on 05/29/2023 · 14 min readFly 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 anglers 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.
The Simms Waypoints Sling Pack in the large size (17L, 1037.4in3) was the fly fishing pack I used the most until recently. This nylon fly fishing 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. It's really durable, 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 recently purchased Umpqua’s Overlook ZS2 500 Chest Pack. It is a large 500in3 (8.2L) chest pack but also comes with a 550in3 (9L) backside pack and a smaller mesh zippered pouch that are interchangeable. This is the best setup I have found that matches how I like to carry my gear.
But what about you? What is the best fly fishing pack for you and what features should your fishing pack have? That all depends on how you—the angler—fish, 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 and the even type of fishing trip. Let’s go over what to look for in a fly fishing pack and take a look at each type of fishing pack as well as my preferred pack in that style.
What to Look for in a Fly Fishing Pack
- Capacity: Does the pack provide enough room for you to carry all the gear you want or need to bring with you?
- Organization: Are there pockets, dividers, or areas for gear-specific storage?
- Gear Attachment Points: Does it have d-rings, loops, or other systems to attach fishing accessories?
- Lashing points: Are there adjustable straps for lashing a jacket or spare rod to the side, if needed?
- Hydration: Can you carry your beverage of choice with you?
- Waterproof: Will the pack protect your gear (phone, camera) from getting damaged if it gets wet. Does it have waterproof material and waterproof zippers?
- Comfortable: How does the pack sit on your body and will it be comfortable to wear all day.
Types of Fly Fishing Packs
A fly-fishing sling pack is carried over one shoulder with the main storage compartments on your back. For example, the Simms Freestone Sling is the fly fishing pack I used for years. 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.
The storage capacity of Sling packs can vary. Some packs have large compartments with removable internal partitions that velcro in place. This provides plenty of storage space and customization. These are great for storing multiple medium to large fly boxes, a jacket, a water bottle, and anything else you need. Other sling bags have longer, shallow pockets on the back that provide space for a fly box or two. These are great for day trips 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. The strap across the chest often has a docking station to attach a zinger or pliers. Some have a small foam fly patch as well. There may also be a section inside the main compartment to store a water bottle. Some sling packs have designated a water bottle holder on the outside of the pack so it doesn't take up space inside the fly fishing pack which is great for the fly angler that carries a lot of gear. When you need to access your gear, you swing the pack around to the front and unzip whatever pocket you need. Often the front zipper pocket will unzip and act like a mini workstation or workbench. 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.
- 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.
- 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 at 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.
This is the fly fishing version of the fanny pack, but much cooler. The Simms Dry Creek Z Hip Pack is my preferred choice in this category. You may see them marketed as a hip pack, waist pack, or lumbar pack. Sizing-wise, hip packs hold 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 with zipper pockets 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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 or clips to attach to a backpack. This additional storage is a great place for snacks, a spare reel or spool, and other essentials. The Orvis Chest pack is a great mid-size option with a harness over both shoulders for added comfort and a built-in tippet holder.
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. Some chest packs have stretch mesh pockets on the front for quick access to frequently used fly fishing accessories like a spool of tippet or split shot. A net can often be attached to a loop or clip on the neck strap or in an integrated net slot that many brands are starting to include in their chest packs.
- 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.
- 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.
A backpack is another option for those days when you need a lot of gear. These fly fishing packs will provide the largest capacity and may also include a compartment for a hydration bladder instead of one for water bottles. If you know you will be hiking a long distance in order to get to the lake or river, a fishing backpack may provide you with enough space to carry your waders and boots so you won't have to carry a wader bag as well. Backpacks designed for fishing often come with lashing points to secure a rod tube to the side so you can carry multiple fly rods. Backpacks will also allow you to carry multiple large fly boxes. I really like the Orvis Waterproof backpack since it has lots of internal storage and is waterproof. You can combine a backpack with a lanyard, chest packs, or even a hip pack if you want more gear-specific pockets. Similar to some of the packs above, many fly fishing backpacks will include an integrated net slot on the back to hold a fishing net.
- 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.
- 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
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. A great example of these features is the Orvis Pro vest.
- 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.
- 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.
A fly fishing lanyard is not a fly fishing pack but a fancy necklace with some padding on the neck and clips around the front to hold only the essential gear like floatant, nippers, and a loaded tippet bar. The Orvis Lanyard is a great option. If needed you can buy one preloaded with a leader, nippers, and scissors too. This is a great option for the fly fishing minimalist or a lanyard could be used in addition to using a hip pack or backpack if you have a lot of belongings to bring along.
- It’s easy to add when using other types of packs.
- You only carry what you absolutely need.
- It’s lightweight.
- 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 fishing nets or water bottles.
As you can see there are a lot of fly fishing bags available. 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 isn't a perfect gear bag that works in every situation but often there is the best pack that should be used in specific fishing scenarios. 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 that fits your style of fishing the best or maybe some hybrid combination of two packs.
You could spend a lifetime trying to find the perfect fly fishing gear bag so make it easier by talking to a Fly Fishing Expert. We'll help you find the best fly fishing pack for your angling needs.