A brief statement on backpacks for hiking with photo gear from the Society Obsessed with Photography Backpack Perfection

How many photography backpacks does it take until you find the right one, or does the right one even exist? The Society Obsessed with Photography Backpack Perfection (SOWPBP) was formed earlier this week to cope with a particularly daunting task — to find the perfect photography backpack for serious outdoor adventures.

We’re not talking about a walk in the park, or moving your backpack 500 yards from the car. This theoretical backpack must be comfortable enough to wear on a 10-15 mile day hike, or walking around an abandoned mining area for 8 hours in the middle of the night. For comfort, the typical photo backpack can’t hold a candle to an internal frame pack with a proper harness and waistbelt.

Of course it’s possible to use a light and comfortable backpack like the Osprey Stratos 26, and fit a dSLR with two lenses inside using a Mountainsmith Cube or Clik Elite Capsule. But often our photography adventures require carrying more camera gear than this setup will hold, including a reasonably large tripod. The bag must be designed with photographers in mind, not a retrofit.

What makes a perfect photography backpack for serious hiking?

The SOWPBP approaches their work methodically, and a crack team of backpack analysts has gathered their initial research data below. Let’s take a look at the requirements, and the preliminary results.

Here are the selection criteria in order of importance:

  1. Fit and Comfort: The harness and waist belt must be comfortable for someone who is 6’1″. The waist belt must transfer weight to the hips, and the bag must have a comfortable sternum strap. The fit of the bag is #1 on the list for a reason.
  2. Capacity: Enough room for 1-2 camera bodies, 3-4 lenses, accessories, an extra layer, and food. A laptop compartment is not necessary.
  3. Padding & Weight: Enough padding to protect the gear, but not so much that the bag is unnecessarily heavy.
  4. Water: Easy to access while hiking. Ever old school, a hydration bladder is not the Society’s preferred way of carrying water.
  5. Tripod: Ability to carry a large tripod if necessary (Gitzo 3 series).
  6. Rain cover: Effective, easy to attach, and packs out of the way.
  7. Size: Although airline travel isn’t the primary purpose, staying within carry-on restrictions allows extra flexibility (22″ x 14″ x 9″, or 45 cubic inches).
  8. Style: From flashy to mundane, how are the aesthetics?
  9. Straps: Attachment points for accessories.
  10. Stands Up: When you set the bag down, it stands up.
  11. Price: A good bag is worth a little bit more, but you have to draw the line somewhere.

Hiking Backpacks for Photography: The Contenders

The backpack list is sorted by brand. The preliminary top picks pictured above are in bold:

  1. Burton Zoom Pack – The Zoom looks to fit the requirements reasonably well. While the capacity is smaller than a Contrejour or Loka, this bag may be worth a look unless you’re tall. The waist belt is apparently at stomach height for anyone 6′ or taller. [12" x 22" x 8", $155]
  2. Calumet BP1500 Large Backpack - Fits many of the requirements, and may be worth a look for those needing to carry a lot of gear. [12" x 22.25" x 9.5, 6.4 pounds, $211]
  3. Clik Elite Contrejour 35- One of two technical climbing/skiing internal frame backpacks on this list, the Contrejour 35 has the proper harness and waist belt of a backpacking bag. There is side access to the camera compartment when you’re wearing the bag. To access the rest of your gear, set the bag down on the front and access the gear through the back (which keeps the part that touches your back clean). Running the Contrejour 35 against the requirements, this bag looks like a serious contender as long as you don’t want to use it as carry-on luggage. [12.8" x 24.8" x 11.5", 4.1 pounds, $305 street]
  4. Clik Elite Venture 35 – The Venture works well for 1-2 bodies, 3 lenses, accessories, an extra layer and food. The waist belt is very comfortable and the harness worked great for me at 6’1″. Tripod carrying is secure, the bag is light, and the price is reasonable. The camera compartment is close to the same size as the Medium ICU in the F-stop Loka. The top compartment is quite roomy — I could fit an extra layer, food, and a panohead with a lot of room left to spare. [24" x 12.2" x 8.6", 3.5 pounds, $239 street]
  5. Crumpler C-List Celebrity (Medium) – A low-key and stylish bag that’s a nice size and looks to have a reasonable waist belt. The tripod carrying system looks good, but the bag is heavy, and does not appear to have a way to carry easily accessible water. [13" x 20" x 10.6", 7.6 pounds, $300]
  6. Dakine Sequence – Haven’t seen a photo of the waist belt, but the styling is nearly a deal breaker unless you’re 20 years old. [11" x 21" x 8", 5 pounds, $140 street]
  7. F-Stop Loka - A technical climbing/skiing pack with an internal frame that fits all of the requirements really well. The Loka features swappable Internal Camera Units (ICU) that makes the bag very flexible when deciding how much camera gear vs. other stuff you need to pack. We’re currently testing this bag and it’s very comfortable. The only downsides are the wait time to get one, and the price. [12" x 22" x 8.5", 4 pounds, $340 with one ICU, rain cover sold separately]
  8. Gura Gear Kiboko 22L - The Kiboko looks like a really well made bag, and the butterfly opening design is attractive for shooting in dirty environments. These bags seem to fit the requirements quite well. However, the way the bag opens looks like a deal breaker because you can’t carry a tripod on the center of the bag, which is a must for long hikes. [14" x 18" x 9", 4 pounds, $380]
  9. Kata Bumblebee 220 PL and Beetle 282 PL – These bags meet most of the requirements pretty well, but are a little bit on the heavy side. The 282 is slightly wider and shallower than the Kata 220, and technically just over carry-on size. The 220 and 282 are listed here just for reference because the 222 PL (below) looks like a better bet. [220 -- 13.4" x 20.5" x 11", 6.5 pounds, $280] [282 -- 14.8" x 20.5" x 10.8", 6.6 pounds, $290].
  10. Kata Bumblebee 222 PL - A little bit wider and deeper than the other Kata bags on the list, and also 1.5 pounds lighter. Perhaps slightly small capacity wise, but the rest of the requirements look pretty good. The gray and white color scheme is bound to get dirty quickly though. The Kata 222 UL is an ultralight variant of this bag that comes in black. The 222 UL can’t carry tripods on the center, which is a good thing because it’s $399. [222 -- 15.2" x 20.5" x 11.8", 5.1 pounds, $260]
  11. Lowepro Vertex 200 AW – The Vertex fits most of the requirements, but is close to 3 pounds heavier than much of the competition. This heavily padded approach is not conducive to backpacking. [12.6" x 18.5" x 10.2", 7.3 pounds, $350]
  12. Lowepro Pro Runner 350 AW – Replacing Lowepro’s CompuTrekker series, the Pro Runner is much lighter than the similarly sized Vertex. This bag and its larger brother the 450 AW look to be contenders if they have a comfortable harness and waist belt, although the 17.9″ height makes me wonder if this bag will work for tall people. [13" x 17.9" x 10.4", 4.7 pounds, $170]
  13. Mountainsmith Parallax – This pack is crazy deep at 15″, sticking out 4-5″ more than any of the other choices here. The photos of the tripod carrying system show strapped under the bag, which does not seem ideal. The size of the harness system does not look good for tall people. [11" x 18" x 15", 5.4 pounds, $130 street]
  14. Naneu K4L - The K4L seems to fit many of the requirements well. We have no experience with this brand, but are curious to see one of these bags in real life. Amazon and B&H are both listed as dealers on their site, but neither has the bag in stock. [14.25" x 21.5" x 9.75, 5.2 pounds, $230]
  15. Tamrac Cyberpack 6 – What is it about Tamrac? Tamrac bags seems retro, but not in a good way. This backpack may be perfectly functional, but we just don’t like how it looks. Maybe you can help explain the je ne sais quoi of Tamrac? [13.5" x 17" x 10.25", 5.8 pounds, $180]
  16. Think Tank Streetwalker Harddrive - A really great design that fits almost all of the requirements. We’ve been using this bag for 2 years on all kinds of adventures. Unfortunately there is one glaring deal breaker for long hikes — the lack of a proper waist belt. Even by using Think Tank’s speed belt system in conjunction with this bag, the waist belt does not transfer much weight to your hips. If hiking is not your concern, this is a great bag in every other respect. [11.5" x 18" x 8.5", 4.5 pounds, $190]

Further Research

Thanks for supporting the Society Obsessed with Photography Backpack Perfection’s further research by making your backpack purchase using the links above. We have made inquiries to the manufacturers of the top contenders on the list to request a backpack for rigorous field testing. If you’ve used one of the backpacks on the list for extensive hiking, we’d love to hear your thoughts. And if you know of a bag that fits the requirements that isn’t on the list, please let us know.

13 thoughts on “A brief statement on backpacks for hiking with photo gear from the Society Obsessed with Photography Backpack Perfection

  1. I roll with the Kata 3-N-1-20, which isn’t going to be on this list due to it’s lack of waist belt. However, I find that the ability of the straps to change from parallel backpack straps to crossing X, eliminating the need for a sternum strap. It also allows me to unclip one side and swing the pack around like a messenger bag. Then unclip either of the side entries pockets, allowing access to two other lenses as well as a clean place to put my camera body while I’m doing all this. The yellow interior is now a must on any bags I have, I stopped losing things in my bag. It took me a while but I’ve been very happy with it since finding it. The most I’ve done is six miles on a day hike in mountainous Maine with the 5Dii, 80-200, 24-105, 50mm, flash, water, first aid kit, snacks, and associated batteries, cards, and hoods. Definitely comfortable during an evening spent in various abandonments or treacherous locations. They make a -30 and -40 which are both larger but I found the -20 to be the size I was looking for.

    However, this list does make me want to check out the Contrejour 35…

    The problem I’ve always found with Tamracs is they seem designed to ride too high on the shoulders, the waist strap always ends up being weirdly placed and the shoulder straps have to be extended too long. I’ve tried and tried but never been happy with them.

    • Hey Jeff – The convertible backpack/sling design is interesting. I’ve had a Kata 465 for a few years that I use for daytime adventures when I’m packing light (1 body 2 lenses no tripod). Great little bag. Maybe the answer is to just bring less stuff. :)

  2. Yeah, when I have to travel for work and shooting in my downtime I just bring a tripod, body, 24-105, flash, flashlight, and remote. Then I cram it all into a Timbuk2 small messenger bag. The tripod has to fit horizontally and sticks out at the top but just the essentials have actually gotten me some better shots.

    Periodically, like in my kitchen, I’ll go through and just take out the stuff I don’t use and get rid of it. It’s nice to have all the gear in the world but sometimes it’s just impractical.

  3. For most of my adventures, I use a Kata 3-N-1 Sling Medium pack that I happen to love. Tons of pockets, tripod attachment accessory, place to clip Nalgene water bottle and yellow interior that allows me to find things easily. No waist belt or sternum strap, but I find the bag is small enough that I don’t need it.

    I also have the Kata 3-N-1 33 version (has laptop pocket) for longer, more gear heavy outings. The laptop pocket holds a light jacket when folded up and I even fit my 70-200 lens. Again, no sternum strap (got my modified at an upholsterer for about $30) but it does have a waist strap.

    I have purchased and returned approximately 10 camera bags now and have tried a number of them on at camera stores and it’s true, there is no perfect bag, but the Katas seem to fit my needs best.

    For someone like me, who is 5’6″, many of the bags above would be too big for me, but they look like great suggestions for someone stronger and bigger.

    • Hey Amy – I know you’re a charter member of SOWPBP. :)

      Sling packs are nice for quick access, but not for heavier loads. The key to carrying a ton of gear long distances is a waist belt that transfers weight to the hips.

      Being 5’6″ means there are a lot more bags that will fit you. I’m not sure if that’s lucky or unlucky. Lots of options!

  4. The word “sling” is deceiving because both bags are backpacks with 2 shoulder straps. (It can just be converted to be a sling.) The larger Kata bag has a waist belt. The small one doesn’t, but it doesn’t fit enough gear to be “heavy.”

  5. Ok, I finally got off my ass to go look at my pack: a Kinesis Journeyman with a number of add-ons. Totally modular, it’s pretty well built gear, which I currently carry my 4 x 5 kit in. Comfortable, and I’ve packed it in airline overhead bins. They’ve got all kinds of configurations of pouches and belts and packs.

  6. I’ve got a Lowepro CompuTrekker Plus AW and have had it since 2008. I carry 5 lenses along with a camera and all manner of bits and pieces in it. I’ve travelled extensively with it, 3 times from Sydney to LAX (with a laptop also in it) and it easily passes the ‘carry on’ baggage test.
    It is incredibly rugged having survived desert, dust, sand, rain, etc, etc. No signs of wear and tear (of any major description) and best of all it comes with a lifetime warranty! Highly recommend any Lowepro kit based on my experiences with this bag.

    • Cool. Thanks, Mark. I’ve owned a LowePro Rover which I really liked but had limited carrying capacity, and a Nature Trekker which was overly padded and heavy compared to similar sized bags from Think Tank. The Compu Trekker is now the Pro Runner, and these bags have a nice spec and are on my list to check out.

  7. I stumbled across this from fredmiranda and I have to say a huge thank you. As an avid hiker and backcountry guy finding the right pack is essential to carry a heavy load for miles and hours at a time. Having limited knowledge of the packs available, tamrac, lowepro, etc… This is a godsend. For me the most critical thing is that waist belt. I do not understand how any pack designed to carry heavy camera gear can be without, yet so many are built with just a strap. Don’t they know this is where you carry a large percentage of your weight??? Think I’ll be going with the clik contrejour 40. Again I can’t thank you enough for pointing me in so many directions!

    • Hi Karl – I’m glad the backpack research was useful! If you’re doing an overnight that’s heavy on photo gear, the bigger Contrejour looks like a good bet. For multi-day trips with less camera gear, a regular Osprey backpack with a Mountainsmith Cube may be worth considering.

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