I’ve looked at and worked with many photo backpacks over the years. But when a new one comes along that looks more useful and comfy for short hops around town, traveling, or serious hiking, I have to try it out. Which brings me to the latest crop of camera backpacks from Adorama, Delsey, HPRC, Kata, Lowepro, Naneu Pro, Tamrac, and Tenba. These packs represent both incremental changes and pioneering efforts. Some bags pay as much attention to style as to utility. There’s nothing wrong with being fashionable, as long as the bag works for you.
Whatever pack you buy, keep this in mind: (1) know what you’ll be shooting and where, what terrain you’ll be traversing, and your mode of transportation over each leg of the journey, and (2) there is no one pack for every person and every purpose.
When touring by car, walking around the city, or going on short nature hikes, I prefer the split-level “clamshell” bag. Essentially two bags in one with dedicated sections for camera gear and personal items, this bag may feature separate access flaps to each section (the favored approach in this group of bags), or a flip-back upper section to reveal the camera compartment below. When on a sustained hike, especially over rough terrain and steep grades, I like the “conventional” photo backpack (with a large outer pocket to hold extra essentials), which carries camera equipment top to bottom. It does better at distributing the load, thereby ensuring greater comfort, stability, and balance. And this may be the only practical choice when hauling long, fast lenses for wildlife or sports. An “expedition pack” is a tall, roomy backpack that is expected to carry all the essentials you’ll need for an extended outing, distributing weight as necessary to ensure comfort and safety and reduce fatigue. And I always welcome a pack that lets me easily convert it to a simple daypack or rucksack for daily activities.
My Top 10 Photo Backpack Criteria
1. Comfort is first and foremost. Buy a pack that will comfortably carry what you need and expect to use. The bag must ride comfortably on your back, with contoured, breathable (usually mesh-covered), and easily adjustable shoulder straps that are of proper width and suitably padded for the load you’re carrying. A waist belt and chest strap together help secure the pack on treks over rough and uneven terrain and either (preferably waist belt) makes sustained walks more endurable. Compression straps on the harness allow the bag to hug the body and provide better balance, and are especially beneficial on larger packs, along with padded “hip wings.” Breathable lumbar padding adds to the comfort factor on extended outings, especially in hot, humid conditions.
2. Organization of camera gear is a must. The camera section should be fully customizable and keep gear well organized, preferably within easy view. You don’t want to start searching for stuff when that special moment arrives.
3. Pockets inside and out. They give you quick access to often-used accessories. See-through and special “organizer” pockets make a bag especially user-friendly. Some bags also provide removable wallets or pouches for memory cards and even a cell phone or other accessories (film, if you carry it).
4. Easy and secure access. Easy and quick access into and out of the bag for the photographer, and preferably difficult access for prying hands. Some bags provide side-access panels to a camera, lens, or flash for quick retrieval of often-used gear. Compression straps on the camera section itself maintain the shape of the bag and ensure that gear is held snug—but also add one extra barrier against uninvited hands.
5. Adequate protection. The bag has to keep gear safe against bumps and grinds via a padded or rigid shell, padded dividers, and stiffened bottom. More rigid bags and dividers keep things from getting jostled or shifting position, whereas more pliant bags are lighter weight. The exterior of a fabric bag (usually made of a coated, abrasion-resistant nylon) must protect contents reasonably well from the elements on its own, with rain/weather flaps for added insurance. Better yet, a “raincoat” (tuck-away or in a pouch) provides the best protection against harsh weather (fabric bags are normally water-resistant but not necessarily waterproof).
6. Scrutinize the bag with your gear in mind. Most bags are designed to hold a 70-200mm f/4 lens, but perhaps not a 300mm f/4 or a 70-200mm f/2.8, or even longer and faster lenses. Remember, you may start out with a compact lens and end up with a more robust optic attached to the camera when it goes back in the bag—so the “camera cradle” should be of suitable size to accommodate your most-used, if not largest, lenses.
7. Convenient storage space for travel necessities. Preferably a dedicated section. These items may include sandwich/snacks, maps, guidebooks, insect repellant, medications, personal healthcare items, and a rain slicker or windbreaker.
8. It should carry a tripod, if required. You’ll need a “tripod sling” (broadly defined as any convenient means of securing a tripod to the bag). The tripod should preferably be centered over the front of the bag, but along the side also works well. Carrying the tripod on the bottom has a destabilizing effect, lowering your center of gravity while making it difficult to stand the bag upright. Where applicable, you might lash a tripod to the top—to raise your center of gravity for a steep climb. Compact tripods often work best, although carbon-fiber designs are light enough to allow a larger tripod to be carried.
9. It should carry a laptop. If you can’t live without your notebook, there should be a padded laptop sleeve of suitable size (manufacturers are sometimes fairly liberal in stating the size accommodated, so bring your laptop along for a fitting). Laptops should preferably ride against the back, not at the front, for better balance.
10. Carryon-friendly. Some bags, namely clamshell designs, are deceptively large. Leave the top section of a clamshell bag, and outer pockets on any pack, empty to give the bag a smaller profile, filling them up upon arrival at your destination. Extra heavy padding in waist belts may lead to a tight fit on some aircraft, so opt for modestly padded hip wings.