When I found out about this vest, I had to get my hands on it. After hunting for years with packs or vests that lacked certain features, the Centerfire Upland Bird Vest appeared to fill all the holes. So, toward the end of last season I managed to get one and use it a few times. It took a while to set up properly because of its infinite adjustability, but once I dialed it in, it performed as expected. Better, actually. Overall, I don’t think there’s a better upland vest available (although I haven’t tried them all), and the price tag – at the higher end of the scale – is more than fair for the features and quality of the product. If your current vest doesn’t offer adequate carrying capacity for gear and birds, the Centerfire might be the ticket.
Storage: you can pretty much load this vest with everything but the kitchen sink. It has so many pockets you might need a spreadsheet to track where you put things. Most of the pockets are adjustable, too, so you can move them laterally along the hip belt to suit your style of hiking, and the shell pockets – big enough to hold a box of shells each – have a zipper and a Velcro flap; thoughtful design (although I’d prefer the flaps have radius or rounded instead of 90-degree corners because they kept poking my skinny bare arms – something I hadn’t noticed last season when I wore long sleeves; not a big deal, but a wee naggy thing.) With the full version of the vest (they offer a base model, too, to which you can pick and choose your pockets), you also get a removable daypack, which I never used because I didn’t fill up the other pockets. But if you’re going on an all-day hike in weather that could change drastically, you could load this vest up with everything you could possibly need and never worry about where to put stuff, even if you limited on multiple species.
Bird “pouch”: Speaking of birds, the pouch might better be described as a “porch” or even a “carport.” It’s big, and easily the easiest to load of any vest I’ve used. And you can easily remove it to clean it out. I haven’t seen this type of game bag on any vest before, and it’s one of the most innovative things about this vest, in my opinion.
Hydration: Water’s probably the most important thing to bring if you hunt with dogs. This vest features a pouch to put a hydration bladder in, as well as removable water bottle pockets, which would allow you to bring – in these three spots alone (there’s room elsewhere for more bottles) – 164 ounces of water. My back hurts just thinking about that. I’m not a bottle guy, so I only use a bladder, and my 100-ounce bladder extends past the fairly shallow built-in pouch, but there’s a thoughtful snap-strap that allows you to secure the top of a bladder (if the bladder has a loop or hook on the top of it; mine does, but not all do) so it doesn’t collapse in the vest. To take the bladder out requires undoing three snaps and the Velcro closure at the top of the mesh cover and unthreading the hose, which is fairly simple compared to other vests I’ve used a bladder in. I’m not exactly sure why the bladder pouch couldn’t be deeper on the Centerfire, but maybe it’s to accommodate the smaller pouches out there. For my 100-ounce bladder, though, I’d like a deeper pouch; another wee naggy thing.
Usability and Comfort: Although I haven’t loaded the Centerfire to capacity, I’m confident that if I did it would handle the load with stability and comfort. The padded shoulder straps are contoured around the neck in a smart “yoke” which distributes the upper load better than other packs I’ve used. But the big deal on this vest is the padded hip belt, which carries – very stably and comfortably – as much as you can throw at it. No matter the terrain or angle of incline or descent, I rarely if ever felt I was carrying anything. It’s really that comfortable. Of course, you’re going to feel it hiking up steep hills, but this vest isn’t what I noticed. I noticed the fact that I should be in better shape, and that whoever invented gravity should be shot, and that chukar hunting might be more fun on the moon, and stuff like that.
Quality: These vests are made by a small company – really just a couple with some help – down in Arizona. It is simply amazing to me that they can produce the variety of products they do, with all the design variations and options, and with the quality that is so obvious on the Centerfire vest. All the stitching, seams, attachments, and other workmanship are as good as I’ve ever seen, better, actually. The materials they use are the best, too: the Cordura is heavy-duty, the D-rings, zippers, snaps and Velcro (or whatever we’re calling the hook-and-loop stuff these days) are all solid and should last longer than I will. In addition to the quality of their products, Q5 promotes another kind of quality, which you might refer to as “equality”: a percentage of every sale supports Arizona Outdoor Adventures, which helps acquaint under-privileged kids with healthy outdoor recreation. Impressive and inspiring.
Picayune: There are some things I don’t like about the Centerfire, though, which aren’t the vest’s fault at all and have more to do with the style of hunting I find myself doing more often than not. The main thing is the vest’s size: you can’t have all that storage capacity without sizeable volume. The Centerfire is a relatively wide and deep vest – the side pockets (mounted on the hip belt behind the shell pockets) extend out a ways, which I noticed when busting through brush looking for grouse or in thickets trying to retrieve downed chukar. Similarly, the generous but rigid bird pouch extends back fairly far, which I noticed getting caught on Hawthorn brush and other branches in heavy vegetation. If I were hunting only in open terrain, or going after pheasants, I wouldn’t think twice about having this as my go-to or only vest. But for some reason I almost always find myself at least once in heavy brush, no matter what kind of hunting I’m doing.
Overall, the Q5 Centerfire Upland Bird Vest is easily the best quality vest with the most desirable features I’ve used. If you don’t find yourself trying to squeeze into or through places where you probably shouldn’t go anyways (maybe I’ll learn one of these days), then do yourself a favor and get this vest. You won’t be sorry.