Initial Ascent with Dennis Stokes

WTR Stockes | Initial Ascent Hunting Pack


Some people call a problem a “problem.” What if you can turn that problem into something? Avid hunter Dennis Stokes from Initial Ascent relates how an uncomfortable hunting pack paved the way for a business that is close to his heart. Learn how integrity and versatility work through many aspects of his life, be it in hunting or business. Catch pointers on how you can share your passion for hunting with your kids and allow them to enjoy in the process.

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Initial Ascent with Dennis Stokes

We’re heading out west and we’re going to visit with Dennis Stokes. Dennis is the CEO of Initial Ascent. Initial Ascent, Dennis, where did that come from?

Thanks for having me, Bruce. My partner and I, we were trying to come up with something and we live in the mountain state of Idaho and we were thinking we want this business to grow and this is our first experience of stepping foot into this industry. It’s our initial launch and we want it to grow, so we’re going to be ascending and hopefully not descending. That’s where it came from, Initial Ascent.

Let’s unpack this. I’m at the trailhead and I’ve got to get up to X elevation. Things will change in the trek, the journey, the climb and will open up from there. Typically, that’s the way it happens. For people who have been on the trail that have done that, go ahead and take a look at them because from everything I’ve ever done, you have an initial ascent and then you get into the climb. I’m going to spin it off to the business. Anytime you think about a business, you begin and that’s the most critical thing about a business. It’s the start. Let’s talk about how you and Joe got together and decided, “This pack doesn’t work for me because the strap doesn’t cinch down and I can’t reach my water bottle carrier,” or whatever and so you started. Let’s go back and get us up to now.

Joe and I have been friends for several years. We met each other at football practice. Our kids were playing football and we went to the same church. Joe and I figured out quickly that we had a common interest and that was hunting. I had just gotten back into hunting probably four or five years prior to meeting Joe and I got back into it in a big way. I had stopped hunting for several years because my wife and I welcomed our twins into the world and they take quite a bit of work. I put things on hold for quite awhile. I got back into it and Joe and I found that common ground and we started hunting together. Both of us owned numerous packs over the years. We’re pretty picky people. We were always talking about, “I wished this pack had this. I really like this about this pack, but I wish it had this speaker. I wish this was a little bit more comfortable. How could we make that a little bit more comfortable?”

I know for me, I was modifying my packs that I had to try to fit my needs and Joe was doing the same thing. Finally, we looked at each other one day and thought, “Let’s stop complaining. Let’s stop talking about it. Let’s do something about it.” At that point, we said, “Let’s make our own.” That’s where it started a couple of years ago. We had to have a foundation. That’s the way we go about life. In life, you have to have a solid foundation. It’s the same thing in the backpack world, especially when you’re hopefully going to be packing out over a hundred pounds on the way back to the truck because that means you’ve been successful in harvesting your animal. We had to make sure it had a solid foundation. That’s where we started. We started with the foundation and then the frame.

I never used a wooden frame where you just wrap a piece of wood and then they used to lash the quarters of whitetail deer, moose or whatever on those frames. Go back and look at the archives. That’s what they used to do and then came along the aluminum and I still have one. It’s a moose pack from Cabela’s that carried game. I’ve carried the weight of an excess of a hundred pounds on that. It got the job done. My son came along and he started going internal frames and then from my hunts, once you get that internal framework you go, “What have I been missing?” I started using an internal frame and that’s where we are now. I do those types of hunts. I’ve got horses or other people. I have a shepherd named Cody.

He packs up and we get the heck out of dodge. Having said all that, packs have evolved folks like everything else. If you’re still running the pack you had five years ago, ten years ago, take a look and there are a lot of packs. There are a lot of packs in the marketplace, but you’ve got to figure out what I’m doing, how long am I doing it and what’s the max that I can get. Bryan Martin, I don’t know how many quarters or how much moose he pulled out and he used somebody out of Bozeman Montana pack. It’s an ungodly amount of weight that he carried and most of us can’t do what Bryan Martin did. There are other people that in my way of saying have used packs. People that are serious hunters, the best thing you can do above your boots, and this is my opinion, is have a pack that’ll do everything you need it to do and a little bit more. What are your thoughts?

That’s absolutely correct in that order. It starts with the boots and the next thing is you’ve got to have a good quality pack. Packs have evolved over the years. You had your big external frame packs, that they were just a meat hauler, but they weren’t comfortable for everyday wear, especially taking your camp in. We’ve got to realize that only a small percentage of the time are we hauling meat and on the other side of that, you’ve got your internal frames, your traditional backpacking style backpacks. Those are very comfortable, but most of them won’t hold the weight necessary to pack an animal out. In these hunting backpacks, we have to create a pack that blends those two worlds together.

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That’s what Joe and I set out to do. There are a lot of other backpack manufacturers out there that build good packs, no question about it. We just felt like the way we were going about it was first of all the way that work for us. You mentioned the wooden frames. Our first frame that we tried out, we had to test the shape of the frame and how that was going to work. We pieced it together with duct tape and baling twine, with different pieces and parts of webbing, straps and buckles that we had lying around, but it was a wooden frame. It’s to test shape, to see how it would haul animals, to see how it would haul our gear and that sort of thing. Believe it or not, the first time we tested that, we took it to Joe and I took it to New Zealand. That was a heck of a place to try out this new frame shape that we had.

If you and I are sitting, having a cup of coffee and we’re chit-chatting and then I go, “Dennis, you got Initial Ascent. What’s your mission? What do you want to accomplish?” The world doesn’t need another pack frame or backpack. You think it does, but the rest of the world, maybe not. Help me out here.

When we first started this thing, we thought, “There’s still room in this industry for raising the bar,” and that’s what we feel like we’ve done. We feel like we’ve taken that bar and raised it up. It all starts with our foundation and our frame. Our frame is called the Integrous frame. Integrous is not a word that’s used very often, but it means simply with integrity. That’s the way we wanted to build our backpack frame. That’s the way we want to live our lives. That’s the way we want to raise our kids. That’s the way we want to run our business, with integrity. It was the perfect name for what we feel like is the perfect foundation for our backpack. It’s a carbon fiber frame and we’ve got a specific shape that we’ve developed that fits the human body very well.

Essentially once you put it in the suspension system, it drives the weight directly through your hips where it’s supposed to go and not on your shoulders. There’s no discomfort or anything like that under extremely heavy loads. Once you get to a certain point, it doesn’t matter how comfortable the pack is, it’s going to hurt at some point, especially when you’re in these mountains. It all starts with that frame. There are some other carbon fiber frames out there, some good ones, but the way we’ve created and designed this and putting it together, there’s nothing else like it in the world. Nobody is doing it like we’re doing it. We feel that what we’ve come up with a has a distinct advantage over the competition. With that, you move on to our suspension system.

Our hip belt lumbar pad, the way we’ve done it with dual padding technology there, we feel like it’s the most comfortable hip belt on market now. The shoulder straps are the same way. That’s the foundation of what we’re doing. You go to the back, the bag is next. Our bag shape is what sets us apart from other bags out there. Most of these backpacks, and it doesn’t matter if you’re in the conventional backpack world or you’re in the hunting world, are shaped like tubes. The 101 on carrying heavy loads is you want to carry that load high and tight against your back. Keeping that in mind, we developed our bag where it was more wedge-shaped and so if you look at it from a rear profile, the bag comes down in a slight V and if you look at it from a side profile, it’s wedge-shaped at the bottom as well. It’s not too block. It’s more like a rectangle and it’s working very well. That shape right there sets us apart from a lot of competitors out there.

There are more and more people in the backcountry because they can, they want to, and they need good information. We’re going to share more information about how to load the pack and Dennis is going to share some of that. This is what you want to do to yourself rather than me throwing a mule deer or caribou into an external frame because I’m 37 years old, 27 years old, fair enough. That was healthy to me and there are a lot of ways to do it. You can go to YouTube and find out how to pack up, but we have a lot of people that go into the wilds and never hunt. They’re just in the wilderness. They’re climbing mountains but they pack their pack in and then they’re going to a spike camp and then they go to the different levels of their ascent. They have to carry less than less stuff, but they still have to carry it. It’s so interesting. When you said web shape, could we say teardrop shape? Would that be correct or would that be an incorrect statement?

It’s not exactly a teardrop because it doesn’t come to a point, but it’s a wedge with a flat bottom, if you will. It is more V-shaped if you look at it from a rear profile. It’s a little bit wider at the top than it is at the bottom. That’s from a rear profile. When you look at the side profile, it’s a little bit wider as you’re looking at it from the side at the top than it is at the bottom. It comes down in maybe more like a half teardrop, if you will, from a side profile.

Let’s help the audience. If they’ve got REI, they’ve got a good camping equipment, trekking equipment, climbing equipment store near them. They want to do it, but they don’t want to go through the progression of, “This doesn’t work. Why did I spend $100 on this or $200 in this or $300 on this?” Line up your base pack against what they would find at REI and draw the comparison. I want to start off how you mentioned you want to carry the weight high. There are reasons for that. You’re going to share why you are going to do that? Let’s walk through that. Start off with when we get the pack where stuff goes in, then we get the frame, then we got the suspension system and then we got the belt or something that ties it in. That’s all the components, isn’t it?

WTR Stockes | Initial Ascent Hunting Pack



Take us through it.

If you’re comparing something like we’ve got where you’re going to be carrying heavy loads, I’m talking heavy loads that are over 100 pounds. Anything that you get at REI, and I’m not picking on them, it’s a different use. You’re going to be comfortable, but none of those packs are capable, in my opinion of comfortably carrying weight of that magnitude. You’re probably looking at tops on a lot of those packs at maybe 60 pounds is what they’re rated for on the bigger side of things. You’ve got a lot bigger weight rating with ours. You’re going to find that with a suspension like ours, our lumbar pads are going to be thicker. Our hip belt ads most of the time are going to be thicker. They’re going to be able to absorb that weight.

The shape of our frame goes along with the curvature of your back. We’re going to couple that with our shoulder straps and our load lifters. Most of these packs that you find at your REI’s will have all these components. It’s just how they’re built as far as what weight they’re going to be able to handle. Everything on ours is beefed up to where you’ve got a lot of one-inch type webbing straps, not the three quarter or the half-inch webbing straps. The big one-inch hip pads, there are two inches’ worth of padding and duel pads on your lumbar pad. You’ve got a lot of cushion there too to absorb that weight. Generally, most of them you’re going to go fit a pack at either our place or an REI. You’re going to fit them the same way. You’re going to put about 20 to 30 pounds in that pack.

We mentioned putting it high and tight against your back. You want to put maybe a sleeping bag or something down in the bottom of it, and then let this weight ride up on top. You want to cinch it down with your compression straps so it’s tight against whatever frame it is. The first thing you’re going to do is you’re going to buckle that hip belt. You’re going to get that tight. The points of your hips will be directly in the middle of those hip belt pads. You’re going to put on your shoulder straps. Everything is loose when you start. The next thing you’re going to do is you’re going to tighten up your shoulder straps in the pockets of your shoulders right there. You’re going to take your sternum strap and buckle it and get it tight, not super tight.

You want it taught across there, a straight line across. The last thing you’re going to do is to snug up your load lifters. When you snug up those load lifters, you’re going to be able to feel any weight that was on your shoulder straps pressing down on your shoulders. You’re going to feel that come up a bit. You’re going to feel that load come into your back. By the time you’re done with it all, your hip belts should be tight. You should feel probably 85% of the weight on your hips, about 15% of your weight on your shoulders, and you’re going to be able to take two fingers. That’s a good guide for us. Take two fingers and slip it underneath your shoulder straps on the top of your straps right there. To me, that’s a perfect fit. We’ve got a video on our YouTube channel. If you go to our YouTube channel, Initial Ascent Packs, you can check that fitting guide out.

Are you guys on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter?

I’m a little old for Snapchat, but we are on Instagram, @InitialAscent. We’re on Facebook, @InitialAscentPack, and also Twitter as well.

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How about LinkedIn?

No, we aren’t on that.

You’re a business. The other great idea is to find somebody that loves your pack, that is younger than you and say, “Would you run our Instagram accounts and we’ll work something out?

We’re working on that as we speak. A gentleman identified that. He has tons and tons of followers and he’s really good at what he does. We’re going to be getting that going here pretty quick.

I can remember sitting on places in North America, in mountains and glaciers and stuff that are scenic. The only way you get there is by your feet. You could parachute it or helicopter it. You could but I did neither of those two things. I climbed in there while I had everything I needed on my back. I remember one time I came off a mountain, I had a lot of weight on my back. A good pack is critical. It’s critical to our hunting and I have always said it, it’s your boots and your pack. If your boots don’t work, you’re screwed from the beginning. If your pack doesn’t work, you might not make it out. Heavy packs aren’t fun done but done right, they’re doable. We’ve got a pack, we’re going to put stuff in. Let’s talk us through a typical ten-day hunt. What’s going to happen with your pack system?

Right now, our pack system is 4,000 cubic inches. If we’re going to do something for seven to ten days, we’re going to have to modify our system a little bit. We are working on a 6,000-cubic inch bag that will take you further. What we do for those multiple day hunts like that when you go over a week is we’ve got a dry bag. Once you get all your gear in your pack, you’ve got your clothes. If you’re on an elk hunt, it’s September, you’re going to dress a lot lighter than you are for a November elk hunt. What we do is you’ll have a minimal number of clothes, but you’ll have your gear, your tent, your sleeping pad, your sleeping bag, first aid kit, your kill kit and all that stuff. All that’s going to stay the same whether you’re going in for three days or you’re going in for ten days. What takes up the most amount of room in your pack is your food.

Most of the time, if you’re smart about it, you’re going to be taking about a pound and a half of food for every day. That’s using the lightweight dehydrated backpacking types type foods. What we do is we take our dry bag and it’s about 1500 cubic inches. We’ll take and put all of our food in that and that will hold seven to ten days’ worth of food. We’ll take and put the dry bag with our food in between our frame and our bag. We’ve got our gear on our bag. We’ve got our food in our dry bag and then we’ve got our lid going over the top. We’re ready to go for seven to ten days with no problem. These packs are meant for going back in the backcountry. Let’s say we’re going five to ten miles in there before we decided to camp. We’ll set up camp and we’ll take our food bag out from between our regular bag or IA4K bag and our frame. It’s got a buckle on the top. It’s a roll-top.

You take a piece of paracord, you tie it up and you can put it in a tree to keep it away from bears. Every day when you’re going to eat something, I take and I put my food, it’s a pound and half or whatever. Each day goes in its own Ziploc back. That way I know I’ve got my Ziploc bag for now and I’m not going to break into tomorrow’s Ziploc bag so I can organize my food that way. It’s just once a day you’re taking that bag down, you’re putting your Ziploc bag in your pack and you’re going off for the day. The way we do that, we have a component or an accessory to our pack system called The Pannier Load Carrier. It’s a load sling. It hooks onto the webbing straps and buckles that we already have on there. I want to say by the time it’s all said and done, it’s about 2,000 cubic inches and it’s got a big pocket on the outside and you can hook your lid up to it. It’s our day pack.

WTR Stockes | Initial Ascent Hunting Pack


Our day pack is about three pounds and you’re off and running. You leave your big bag. You can take the big bag off at your camp, leave it there and you don’t even have to mess with it until you’re ready to hike out with your camp. We’re using our Pannier Load Carrier for all of our day hunts out of camp. Once you get your animal down out there, that load carrier carries that first load of meat back to camp. Once you get back to camp, then you pack up your camp because you’ve got to get back to the truck. You’re packing up your camp. The load of meat that you already have on, you sandwich that with the big bag, hook the lid up and you’re off to the truck with your first load. It’s a versatile system, but if you’re off for seven or ten days on an elk hunt, that’s exactly how we’re going to do it.

Folks, you might want to take notes. Hopefully you did take some notes. I made the mistake of leaving camp without any pack. I had my day pack, my knife and stuff like that, so I quarter up and get the animal taken care of. You have to sling it over your shoulder and that looks fun, but it’s not really fun. It looks a little cool, but it isn’t. You’ve got to think about it, get into the camp, get it set up. That’s all good. That’s the hiking in part. Now you’re turned into a hunter. You’ve got to figure out, “I’m hunting. I’ve got the game down.” Now you’re going to turn into a meat processor. You owe it to that animal to get that sucker out because in September, it could be 80 to 90 degrees. You don’t want to lose your meat. You don’t want to lose your cape. You don’t want to lose any of that stuff.

There are many different factors that enter into why you need the best pack you can possibly afford and why you need to be in physical condition to do all what we’re talking about. If you go past five miles in the mountains, you’re someplace. You get in ten miles and you’re really someplace. We’re talking about the lower 48, we’re not talking about in Alaska. You get in there and you’re not on horses, llamas or goats or whatever animals you’re using. It’s all on you. You better have it figured out. I’ve made enough mistakes and say, “I don’t think I’m going to do that again.” Learn from other people’s mistakes. That’s the biggest thing I can say on that. You think about hunting and we were talking about how Dennis came out of Florida seeking one of those whitetail deer in Florida. I don’t mean to degrade your deer in Florida. I’m going to get some hate mail from Florida. I know that, but it’s funny. It’s like the first antelope. I’d lift it up, I go, “Okay.”

I was the same thing. I was hunting down in Mexico for deer years ago. I got it down and we threw the entire thing in my pack and went. We weren’t very far from our camp and so we decided we’re just going to throw it in whole and we’re going to go and we’re going to take care of it. We had a tree there that we can hang it up in and do it the old-fashioned way. It’s how I used to do it back home.

That’s something that you think about and you do see pictures of guys doing that all the time. I always used to wonder how they keep a mature whitetail on their back and they could be 200 pounds, but later on I found out that they maybe didn’t weight 200 pounds.

That’s right.

Maybe they did. Don’t take offense. Hunting’s a big part of your life. How are you bringing your kids along and teaching them about the hunting tradition?

I’m trying to get them involved as much as I can. They started at an early age. They all know how to shoot a rifle. They all know how to shoot a bow. I’m just taking them out with me. We do a lot of hiking around and I’ve had all three of them except for my twelve-year-old, he’s next. I’ve had the older two, they’ve been on hunts with me, multiple hunts. My son, he had killed a bear by the time he was ten and several other things. My daughter, she had the best time out there with dad on mule deer hunts and turkey hunts and everything. Now, they’re busy. The twins, they’re fifteen and they’re busy with sports. They’re in high school.

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The seed has been planted and they’ll go hunting if they have a little time in their precious schedules. My youngest one, she’s shown an interest in shooting a bow. We have gotten a lot of time into being in the backyard and starting at even seven yards and just getting her to where she’s hitting that target and starting out few fingers. Now we’re back up to about fifteen yards and she’s making these tight grips at fifteen yards. She knows that we’re going to start moving back a little further. She’s enjoying it and as her dad, I’m eating it up. I know there are a lot of kids out there that has started a lot younger and whatnot, but it doesn’t matter what age they are. As a dad, it’s a lot of fun to see that and to see the smile on their face when they hit that 3D antelope target in the kill zone and they look up at you and they say, “Dad, antelope.”

That works for me. How do people get ahold of you, Dennis? If somebody wants to reach out and say, “I agree with you. I’ve got X, Y, Z and I’ve been doing X, Y with them. I carried 150 pounds off X mountain last year.”

They can get ahold of me at That’s probably the best way they can get a hold of me other than Instagram. I run our Instagram feed and so they can direct message me on there, but they got to follow us first. Facebook’s another way as well.

How about your website?

The website is Go on there, read about the pack, read about how we came about. You’ve got to get to look under the hood a little bit and find out how things are made, how we designed it and what we offer on there.

We were on Facebook Live and we’re talking about the rendezvous that was held there. How do people get a hold of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers?

It’s a great organization that supports and celebrates public lands, our public land rights and public land use. It’s I strongly suggest that people go and check that out and read about our public lands. Read about the fight out there right now with preserving our public lands and our right to use our public lands.

In Colorado, we have a lot of access issues because ranchers come in and they buy X ranch and you’ve been going on the Permian basin on this one road for a number of years. All of a sudden, there’s a locked gate.

It’s happening more and more.

There’s a locked gate, but there are 10,000 acres in the Permian basin that I’ve been hunting forever. On the other side, in some cases that locked gate that’s been locked for ten years is now open. There are two sides of this. One thing I’m going to say about this backcountry, this whole public land debate, is we need to reach common ground. We talked about this on Facebook Live with non-consumption people, people who just like to go out in the solitude and watch the sun go down at 14,000 feet and watch it come up at 14,000 feet. If you haven’t done that, do it. Go ahead and do it.

Email me at Tell me you didn’t come off the mountain like a different person. You would absolutely. You’d lose some weight for sure, because I do every time. Dennis, I’ve totally enjoyed this and I look forward to working together and seeing where this whole journey goes. It’s enjoying my good friend over with your wilderness attitude. I wanted to connect with you and raise your flag and float your balloon and let people know you’re out there. Folks, if you want to know why you need a pack that’s going to get you in and out, Dennis’ folks are going to tell you the answer to that question. What are your thoughts? Let’s wrap it up.

Thank you so much Bruce, for having me. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I love talking about what I’m passionate about and that’s backcountry hunting and the packs. Thanks so much for the opportunity.

Up next is my good friend Chef Derek St. Romain. If you’re on social media and seeing some of the dishes he cooks up, one time I said, “I’ll pay the FedEx if you FedEx that meal to me.” I was serious. It was venison loin. It was exquisite. He didn’t take me up on my offer. Having said all that, Derek St. Romain came out of New Orleans with Katrina, lost everything and reestablished himself in the Carolinas, but he did more than that. He started giving back. Backyard Bow Pro are a group of guys throughout the south that give food away. They go hunting and give food away and feed people. It doesn’t get any better than that when you’re down and out and rebuilding, it’s the character of the man. Derek St. Romain is a man of character and I look forward to doing some special things with him, especially in the fall and the wintertime. We’re going to cook up some wonderful meals and we’re going to be sharing them through Whitetail Rendezvous. All that to say, I’m pleased to have Derek back in the show and you don’t want to miss this.

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