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:
- 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.
- Capacity: Enough room for 1-2 camera bodies, 3-4 lenses, accessories, an extra layer, and food. A laptop compartment is not necessary.
- Padding & Weight: Enough padding to protect the gear, but not so much that the bag is unnecessarily heavy.
- Water: Easy to access while hiking. Ever old school, a hydration bladder is not the Society's preferred way of carrying water.
- Tripod: Ability to carry a large tripod if necessary (Gitzo 3 series).
- Rain cover:Effective, easy to attach, and packs out of the way.
- 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).
- Style:From flashy to mundane, how are the aesthetics?
- Straps:Attachment points for accessories.
- Stands Up: When you set the bag down, it stands up.
- 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 inbold:
- 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]
- 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]
- 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]
- 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]
- 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]
- 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]
- 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]
- 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]
- 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].
- 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]
- 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]
- 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]
- 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]
- 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]
- 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]
- 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]
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.
Update 7/14/2015: See a comparison of the f-stop Loka (now Ajna) and MindShift Gear Rotation 180 Horizon.