Published Jun 29, 2022 5:00 PM
Upland hunting vests were a little different when I started hunting game birds nearly 50 years ago. It was a simpler time, even down to the clothes we wore afield. Northerner boots. Tattered brush pants. J.C. Higgins shell vests. And, perhaps because it was, after all, upland season, well-worn canvas hunting coats.
Today, the clothes upland game hunters wear afield are a bit different, to say the least. Modern technology has contributed much in the way of design, fit, comfort, and convenience in both vests and jackets. This includes built-in shooting pads, lightweight designs, and hydration capabilities. The biggest determining factor in your upland vest selection will depend on where and what you hunt. Once you can fine-tune what you’re looking for, the rest is easy. I rounded up a collection of the best upland hunting vests (and jackets) for different hunting styles and experience levels to help you stay comfortable in the field this fall.
Things to Consider Before Buying an Upland Hunting Vest
If you give some thought to what it is you’re looking for and, perhaps most significantly, what you plan to do with the vest, then purchasing the proper piece of apparel becomes much easier. Here are some factors to consider before you buy an upland hunting vest:
What/Where You’re Hunting
Cottontails? Pheasants? Smaller game birds, e.g. quail, partridge, or chukar? What you plan to hunt can play a role in the vest or jacket you ultimately buy. Bunnies are heavy; thus, a lighter vest out of the gate might be best. What about where you chase those bunnies? Are you hunting in briars? Brambles? Maybe you’re walking miles in the Nebraska Sandhills in search of sharptails and prairie chickens? Then, an ultra-ligt vest might get the nod.
Similar to what/where, your normal temperatures can help you decide on a strap vest, traditional vest, lightweight jacket, or heavier canvas coat. Back in the day, we wore both—a smaller shotshell vest underneath a mid-weight canvas coat.
Canvas. Oil cloth. Cordura nylon. Synthetics. This is a personal preference decision. Me? I love the look and feel of canvas, and it’s served me well, in briars or wide open grasslands. Same with oil cloth; it’s just nice, and it reminds me of those simpler times back in Ohio during the 70s. Cordura is tough, as are many of the synthetics, and both can be less expensive than either good canvas or oil cloth.
There’s something to be said for being able to fill a hydration bladder prior to the hunt and then sipping all-day long to stay hydrated. That convenience is a result of the modern era and many hunters enjoy this luxury in the field.
Why it made the cut
Simple. Utilitarian. Rugged. Roomy. This one does the job and at a great price.
- Construction: All-cotton
- Sizes: Small through 3X
- Accessories: Front-loading game bag, Ten (10) total shotshell loops
- Front-, side- and rear-loading game pouch
- Integrated blaze orange
- Lightweight and tough
- Machine washable
- No dedicated hydration bladder or compartment
I am a simple man who enjoys simple things. Like Cabela’s Traditions vest. I like pockets, and this has plenty—cargo pockets, with five elastic shotshell loops, and a zippered inside pocket for tucking away things you can’t lose. It also has lined handwarmer pockets below, a pair of higher pockets, also zippered, on the right and left chest, which is great for things like licenses, cell phones, and E-collar remotes.
This vest is pretty close to the old-school look with its blaze orange quilted shoulder patches, front-load game bag, and what I’d call your classic design. All for $70, give or take.
Why It Made The Cut
Lightweight, comfortable, and packs everything you need to carry. Plus, the tin cloth looks incredibly cool.
- Construction: Cotton/tin cloth
- Sizes: Regular or Super
- Accessories: Rear-loading game bag, adjustable shoulder straps
- Tin cloth is easy to maintain
- Extremely versatile
- Small-ish game pouch; strictly rear-loading
- Limited cargo space
- No blaze orange
I’ve used one of Filson’s strap vests for years and years while chasing everything from Maine woodcock and grouse to Iowa ringnecks and Nebraska prairie chickens. Through all of those diverse species and habitats, I couldn’t be happier with its performance. A strap vest isn’t for everyone or every upland occasion; however, if you’re looking to travel light and with minimal gear—maybe a quick hunt before or after lunch, or when you know you’re not going all that far—then this tin cloth game bag could just be the ticket. Filson does offer an Upland Guide Strap Vest in blaze orange and with more gingerbread if that’s what a hunter is looking for.
Okay, so it’s not a filing cabinet, but this minimalist strap vest is crafted to Filson’s exacting specifications and can do pretty much everything the bird/small game hunter needs a vest to do. My personal garment has cotton shoulder straps; the latest version, sadly now made overseas, has nylon straps, which users don’t find nearly as comfortable. Still adjustable, but not as user-friendly. As for the tin cloth, it’s tough and easy to keep clean. What’s more, come late season cold, the strap vest can be worn over a traditional coat, without being bulky.
Why It Made The Cut
A well-made vest with plenty of storage and shotshell loops for only $40.
- Construction: Mid-weight canvas
- Sizes: Small – 4X
- Accessories: Front- or rear-loading blood-proof game pouch, external (10 total) shotshell loops
- Canvas build makes it tough
- Oversized slightly; can be worn in addition to a jacket or heavier hoodie
- No zippered pockets on the upper chest
- No specific hydration unit
Let’s face it, hunting has become an expensive recreational pastime, what with licenses, ammunition, shotguns, dog expenses, and travel. So, if we can save some money, well, then, all the better, as long as we’re not sacrificing too much in the way of quality.
At only $40, the Gamehide’s Shelterbelt Vest offers up those money savings, without pushing quality to the curb. I’ve worn mine for years; my wife, Julie, has worn hers, and while, no, it’s not the proverbial Taj Mahal of outdoor clothing, the vests have more than served us well.
If you’re looking for gingerbread, you’re not going to find it here. This is a relatively elemental vest; not minimalistic, but simple. The Shelterbelt hits the marks—durable without being heavy, blaze orange presence, shotshell loops, front- and rear-loading pouch, and cargo pockets. I’d like an interior zippered pocket for stuff I don’t want to lose, but for the price of a dozen McDonald’s happy meals, well, you just can’t have everything.
Why It Made The Cut
A well-made canvas jacket with plenty of amenities from a trusted name in partnership with a respected conservation organization. ‘Nough said.
- Construction: 12-ounce all-cotton canvas
- Sizes: Small, Medium, 2X
- Accessories: Zippered game pouch, adjustable cuffs
- Aftermarket recoil pad compatibility is a plus
- EZ clean blood-proof game pouch
- Optional Pheasants Forever (PF) embroidery
- Blaze orange shoulder patches and back
- Zippered chest pockets
- Could be a bit more water repellent
- Sizes can run a little on the big side
This isn’t a shameless plug, only the truth of the matter. I have a lot of Browning gear, use a lot of Browning gear, and depend a lot on Browning gear. I use it because it works, and if, for some reason, I’m displeased, I know the folks at Browning will make things right.
But, onto Browning’s Canvas Jacket. I personally like sporting the Pheasants Forever logo; some may not. Either way, the organization does good work, not only for pheasants but for all sorts of critters, hunted or not. I give high marks to whoever thought to include a zipper on the game pouch, which makes for a quick ‘n easy clean-out. If it’s fancy you’re in search of, this one may not be it. There aren’t any bells or whistles; just pockets where you need pockets, zippers where they should be, and warm enough to ward off even an Iowa winter, so you can keep pestering those roosters. As for price, this canvas jacket ranges from $95 to $145, with a C-Note being a tremendous price for an all-canvas that can be worn in and out of the field.
Why It Made The Cut
It’s tough finding good hunting gear specifically built for younger/smaller individuals. Gamehide solved the problem.
- Construction: Lightweight synthetic material
- Sizes: Medium, Large, XL
- Accessories: Ten elastic shotshell holders, button closure cargo pockets
- Excellent value
- High visibility blaze orange
- Blood-proof game bag
- Quilted shoulder patches
Let’s be honest here. Kids out-grow clothes quicker than an Indy 500 pit crew can change a tire. No sense in spending $300 on an upland vest that’s not going to fit them at the end of their first season. Later on, when they’ve demonstrated a true love of the sport and they can pick up half that $300? Absolutely, but not out of the gate.
Fortunately, the folks at Gamehide have taken up the gauntlet thrown, and have introduced their Front Loader Youth Vest, a bare bones upland vest. Perhaps double-duty as a squirrel hunting vest in September? It has just enough space so as to allow Little Bill or Brenda to pack his/her own stuff, without hanging on ‘em like a set of blaze orange curtains. There’s room for drinks, room for snacks, loops for shotshells, and a decent-sized front-loading game pouch so your young charge can carry his/her rabbits or pheasants or quail. No, it’s not going to last until the end of time, but this lightweight little vest can help get them started on the road to hunting independence.
How I Picked ‘Em
I didn’t use to be, but nowadays, I am pretty particular about what I wear into the field. Sure, a lot of that depends on what I’m hunting, the weather, the terrain, and how I want my apparel to perform throughout the hunt. As my upland vest or jacket isn’t singular of purpose, I’m looking for that garment to perform well in several different categories; so there’s understandably a lot going on here, including expectations. Essentially, though, I want this vest or coat to rank high or agreeably high in the following:
I’m likely going to be wearing this thing for hours as I walk from one end of the planet to the other, so comfort is huge on my list. And this means the vest/jacket is comfortable when I put it on at the truck, and it’s still comfortable once it’s packing two roosters and a brace of bunnies, plus whatever ammunition and water I have remaining.
This goes back to comfort, particularly when it comes to the pull, per se, on the shoulders when the vest is loaded down with both gear and game. If the straps are too narrow, well, it starts to hurt after a while. Balance, too. With a full contingent of shotshells in the lower front pockets, does the vest pull-down and become unbalanced? Here, I want something that’s wide enough to provide that comfort and balance.
Game bags get grungy. Period. And occasionally, though I didn’t do it much as a younger man, I’d like to wipe the back pouch clean and vacuum out the weed seeds, crud, and corruption that accumulates back there. Am I able to unzip it for easy access? Better yet, can I completely remove it, turn it inside out, shake it, and throw it in the washing machine?
My vest/jacket takes as much abuse as do my upland brush pants, so this piece of apparel has to be incredibly tough and durable. Rips and tears come with the territory; however, I don’t want something that falls apart at the seams during its first season. Nor do I want a vest/jacket that cowers at the sight of a blackberry thicket. And, perhaps as an aside to durability, I want this apparel to afford some degree of protection from said berry thorns and hawthorn spikes.
Ten shell loops in both the left and right lower front pockets, and the pockets themselves have a flap-style button cover. To me, this is the utopian scenario, as I hate having loose shotshells rattling around in my pockets, each just waiting for the opportunity to become listed amongst the missing. But I don’t need 104 shell loops, either. Why? Because shotshells are heavy, and if I can’t kill two rooster or two bunnies with 20 shots, well, I have bigger fish to fry.
And finally, price. I’ve said it before but it’s worth saying again. The very best ‘X,’ whatever ‘X’ might be, does you no good if you can’t afford it. Buy the best your wallet will allow, but remember, a higher price doesn’t always indicate higher quality.
Q: How much does a good upland vest cost?
Like used car prices, this really varies from vest to vest. While a good entry-level vest with just enough amenities can run $40, a top-of-the-line garment featuring all the proverbial bells and whistles, including hydration, padding, person-to-person adjustments, pockets, zippers, and more pockets could set you back $300 or more. Good news? There is a lot of in-between here, with many good options from $80 to $125.
Q: Which is better – a vest, or an upland coat?
It just truly depends on your needs and other variables, e.g. where you’re hunting, when you’re hunting, what you’re hunting, and how often you intend on using the garment. For early season wide open hunts, e.g. Nebraska sharptails or Oregon chukar, I’m going with a good lightweight vest that will allow me to carry plenty of water. Iowa pheasants in late December? You can bet I’ll be wearing a full coat, preferably canvas, to help block the inevitable wind.
Q: Is a game pouch really important?
Differing opinions here, but I would say absolutely on a game pouch. And a so-called blood-proof game pouch, which means it’s reasonably easy to clean during the season. Game bags are great for packing gear, aside from the obvious harvested game; items such as water, extra clothing, and an infinite number of Hostess fruit pies.
As is the case with so much of the gear we hunters use afield, the purchase of an upland hunting vest and/or jacket has much to do with personal preference, and on any number of the aforementioned variables. Above all, is comfort and durability. Regarding the former, I’ve of a mind the ideal upland vest should be comfortable to the point of invisibility; that is, you don’t even know you’re wearing it until time for another shotshell, sip of water, or to slip that ‘ole rooster into the game bag. Rugged, too. Tough. Long-lasting. I still hunt birds and bunnies out West here bedecked in vests and coats both that are easily 20-plus years old and still providing excellent service. Buy what you can afford and take care of it. You should be, then, handing it down to your grandchildren.