Waist Pack Shootout: Simms Headwaters Waist Pack versus Mountainsmith Tour Pack

gear bagI’ve been a lover of waist packs for years, and have gone through several, alternately switching back to vests now and again, but always winding up back where I started. I’ve been using one exclusively for the past year, the Mountainsmith Tour, but another (the Simms Headwaters Waist Pack) recently came my way and I thought it worth doing a little comparison/contrast. So let’s go…

Simms Headwaters Waist Pack

Simms Headwaters Waist PackSimms’s Headwaters Waist Pack is a fairly new addition to the small pack lineup, but I’ve already seen quite a few of them out and about. The pack is beautifully built, with heavy cordura for most of the outer and the inside being a combination of nylon and elastic mesh pocketing.

Simms goes for form and function here. The pack is essentially five compartments – a main accessible from the top, and two zippered compartments forward of it. The main compartment and the first in front contain numerous zippered and/or velcro-ed pockets – there is plenty of organizational capability within. The main compartment flap was also fitted with magnets so you didn’t have to repeatedly zip and unzip. The last compartment is hard covered, a box – with a velcro-enabled fly patch it would make a good bench, and it’s just big enough for a large waterproof C&F box too. The last two compartments are like water bottle holders, only they’re too small for most water bottles – they have cordura flaps over their tops (secured via velcro), and have just enough padding to keep a point-n-shoot camera (or cell phone…ugh) safe.

Stuffed SimmsThe lumbar section has an ample supply of padding, as do the waist straps. With three fly boxes, a camera, a GPS (yes, I get lost even on waters I’ve fished a hundred times) leaders, split shot, a net dangling off the back, and a few energy bars tucked inside the pack felt quite comfortable on both my waist and slung over my shoulder. The waist straps also hold various elastic and rubber/velcro gizmo holders – good for securing tippet spool holders, clippers, clamps, etc. for easy access.

After stuffing the pack full, I found it a little cramped. The main compartment can only hold two large boxes, and if you carry leader material in spools (my Maxima obsession shines through), you can’t really double them up in any of the pockets without furthering the crowded-ness. In addition, I did my best to organize various items into all those pockets, but still found myself fumbling around a bit to find what I wanted. Call it overcomplexity (or simple-mindedness on the part of the tester), but after three outings I was still searching, searching, searching.

What I like

– Build quality
– Magnetic top flap
– Snag free thinking

What I don’t like

– Usable capacity
– Overabundance of pockets/dividers


Volume – 810 cu. in.
Dimensions – 15” x 9” x 6”
Weight – estimated 1 lbs 3oz
Retail price – $99.00

Mountainsmith Tour Pack

Mountainsmith Tour PackThe Mountainsmith Tour Pack has been a staple of my gear diet for going on two years. It’s a popular item among day hikers, and certainly not built specifically for fly fishing. I’ve had to make it work, with a few key chain rings, zingers, and miscellaneous clips added on.

We’re talking minimalist design here. The Mountainsmith has a large main compartment with one zippered pocket within, and another zippered pocket on the front. The side pockets (again, suited for water bottles), are mesh with drawstrings, and are big enough to hold a one-liter Nalgene bottle. I use one to keep tippet out of the way (attached to a zinger) and the other to hold a camera that I never actually use since I catch so few fish in a small LowePro case.

Stuffed MountainsmithDue to the scarcity of compartments, the Mountainsmith Tour feels big. Very big. It will comfortably fit four large waterproof C&F boxes in the main compartment (or two boxes and a philly cheese steak sandwich – I’ve given those up but it doesn’t mean you have to) as well as odds and ends in the front pocket. Leaders are stored in the main area’s zippered pocket, and I’ve hung my clippers and clamp on the waist strap, secured by a zinger/small d-ring combination. The pack was originally built for day hiking, so as expected it is very comfortable even when fully loaded.

From the “nothing is perfect” files, carrying a net is always a pain when using waist packs, and with the Mountainsmith that is no different. You’re forced to stuff it inside the waist strap or directly behind, or dangling it off the pack. The former reduces comfort, and the latter just makes for something else to wrap your line around. I still haven’t found a good solution there. Further, the Mountainsmith is full of straps (more to snag on), and God forbid you actually get one of your flies hooked into those side mesh pockets. It’s history, even with barbs crimped down.

What I like

– Versatility
– Large main compartment
– Minimalist feel

What I don’t like

– Use of mesh means snag-prone
– Lots of straps also means snag-prone


Volume – 488 cu. in.
Dimensions – 10” x 11.5” x 5”
Weight – 1 lbs 5oz
Retail price – $70.00


If you are a complete dork traditionalist, you are probably still using a vest. Personally, I’m an absolute tool but I’ve still given up the vest for good. If you’re heading down that road yourself (being a tool, giving up your vest, or both) there are plenty of choices out there designed by fly fishers for fly fishers, and the Simms Headwaters Guide Pack is certainly a worthy choice.

A fishing buddy who also owns the Simms pack asked me what I thought about it. When I said I was still on the fence he noted it often takes a while to get it right with new gear, and that my lengthy excursion with the Mountainsmith meant it might take even longer to get my last leg over. I agree. It comes to moving down the learning curve with a new piece of gear, or sticking with what you already have dialed in tight. I’ve already made a big investment in waterproof boxes and various accessories to make my life easy with the Mountainsmith, and am simply unwilling to go down that path again. It’s about choice, and choice alone. The Simms Headwaters pack gets two thumbs up, it’s just that for me the Mountainsmith gets three.

MG signing off (to see how many licks it actually takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll pop)

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Simms pack was won at the South Platte Pro-Am Carp Slam. The MountainSmith pack was paid for out of some full-time financial and technology (and part-time fly fishing) hack’s pocketbook.


The Professor says:

hmmm … does that make me a dork or a tool

Mike T says:

Is the simms pack waterproof or equipped with a special “whoops I just fell in the river” pocket?

@CB – IMHO you are both.

@MT – Negative. But, it did get rained on and everything stayed dry, so it is fairly water repellent. Would it take total submersion? Doubt it. And in my case it doesn’t matter – my boxes and camera are both waterproof, and I DO NOT carry a phone on the water.

Nice writeup Gracie. My brother-in-law designs and makes bags, packs, etc. and I’ve been using one of his fishing fanny-pack designs for about eight years now–I would *never* go back to a vest. However, my entire pack could probably fit into the largest pocket of either of these babies. I guess I go for the minimal minimalist in gear. However, I’ve never found myself lacking anything (except fish). The magnet concept sounds interesting. I’m not a big zipper fan, and Velcro seems to wear out too quick for me. Is it just the flap with the magnets? Any problems with the flap accidentally flopping shut when you didn’t want it to? That’s one thing about zippers: when they’re open, they’re open.

Cell phone on the water? Don’t tell me you’ve witnessed this in person!

-scott c

Trigg says:

Do you waist pack fans go out on the water for the day without a rain jacket? Does it fit in the pack along with fishing gear?

@Scott – Thanks! There is a zipper on top, and the magnets are embedded under the material. It’s a pretty neat concept. Agree on the velcro bit too – wears out too darn fast. Phones…seen ’em, many a time. No cell phone towers by the rivers though…at least not yet.

@Trigg – The Simms is probably a bit tight for a jacket unless it is very compress-able. The MS…you could get one in the main compartment but you’d have to give up the philly cheese steak sandwich. The MS also has two draw straps on the bottom – I secure a light jacket there, or just get wet.

Rainjacket? What’s that?

Actually, being as arid as it is where I live and do 95% of my fishing, it’s quite unusual for a “surprise” thunderstorm. If it looks threatening, or the forecast indicates rain, I’ll tie a waterproof shell around my waist or if I’ll be wading in high water I’ll just tuck it inside the back of the tops of my waders. In the winter, I layer and when I have to peel a layer off, inside the back of the top of the waders.

I do have a thin poncho that does fold up small and thin enough to fit inside my pack, but rarely take that.

My first answer was most honest though–I usually don’t bother with one unless it’s actually raining or there are huge, rain-threatening clouds when I leave the vehicle. Otherwise, my hat keeps the bulk of the rain off me except my shoulders and arms and then the sun comes out and dries me off fairly quick.

Ariel says:

I purchased the Simms Headwaters Waist Pack for the Volume, which is outstanding. The construction is exactly what you would expect from this esteemed company. However, though the main compartment is exceptionally roomy, it is difficult to work with, since one has to hold open the ‘top’ while rummaging through. It would have been more effective if the top opened outward, away from the users body, that way the user doesn’t have to hold it open. Secondly, I would like to see at least one of the side pockets utilized for a water bottle or maybe even have the water bottle holder on the bottom, much like Fishpond. I would not hesitate to purchase a newly designed Headwaters waist pack if only these changes were made. If you’re looking for top quality both in workmanship and materials this bag is great.

Ariel – Good points! The top flap didn’t bother me, and I think the addition of the magnets was meant to protect stuff as you fumbled. However, the addition of a bottle holder or strap (for say lashing a compact rain jacket) on the bottom would be a good one. All in all, the construction is fantastic. And even if it wasn’t, Simms customer service is top notch.

Paul Cummins says:

Hi Micahel:
Thanks for the comparison of these two packs. Please help me with a couple of question. Recently I had my backpack ripped off from the overhead shelf in the first class car of a train in France. I knew that the luggage storeage at the end of the cars were vulnerable, but I didn’t dream somebody would be so gutsy as to just lift a pack right from over my head. Camera, journals, meds, etc. Very painful to lose three weeks worth of photos and a month of travel journals. Result is, I think I will go with a front pack from now on, and just not take it off. My question is, it seems that almost all front packs are aimed at fishermen, which I am not. Not that that disqualifies a pack for me, but, what would you suggest for somebody who is trying to replace a small backpack with a general-use chest or waist packt? Can these packs you reviewed be worn in front? It looks to me like the Simms, with 300 plus cubic inch advantage, would work best for me. But, can it be worn in front, or do you know of a better pack for me. Thanks so much for you time and trouble. Paul Cummins portergulchpaul@gmail.com

Hi Paul –

First and foremost, the Simms pack is nice. But…it isn’t a general storage pack – it has numerous pockets and dividers specifically designed for fly fishing. That was the reason the MountainSmith won out with me – I already had a significant investment in large waterproof boxes and zip bags which I didn’t want to reorganize.

If I was looking for a front positioned waist pack, I’d use the MS Tour or Day.

Hope that helps.


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