Best backpack / rucksack for hiking photographers

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Chris 222 Contributing Member • Posts: 848
Best backpack / rucksack for hiking photographers
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Looking for your next hiking + photo backpack (“rucksack” in many countries)? What follows is based on actual experience(s) and might help you. [Reminder: a jaunt to the zoo or a walk to that scenic area a couple miles up from the parking lot is not hiking. Just sayin’...]

BACKGROUND
My yearly walking / running / hiking average is 2,000 miles (about 3200 kilometers.) I also am a lifelong enthusiast photographer who travels extensively for work. Hiking, including Trail Running, and Photography are my favorite activities when it comes to seeking solace from the ever-nastier corporate world (mostly USA, Asia and Europe for me.) Over the years I have met like-minded colleagues around the world and many have become dear friends. We form a fairly large group that stays in touch through a private network. We jump at any opportunity to do small group hikes whenever we are in the same region. Because of the high level of trust we often swap photo and hiking gear. This has allowed me to test all kinds of equipment and I thought I would share here the results of decades of experience with both hiking backpacks and “photo” backpacks (main brands plus many others.) After running my initial draft through that wonderful community, I edited this post with their thoughtful suggestions. For the record we all buy our own equipment.

BOTTOM LINE: PHOTO BACKPACKS (STILL) DO NOT WORK FOR SERIOUS HIKING
While some of us still own dedicated bags (I have a large dresser full of Tamrac, Lowepro, Domke, TTP, Kata, Tenba, etc. bags, plus tons of pouches, ICUs, and other accessories) none of us uses her/his expensive “photo bags” for serious hiking anymore. Why? In a nutshell, while some photo bag manufacturers are inching in the right direction, their bags still have one or more of the following major flaws (not helped by their even more major overpricing):

1 - Contact backpanel = pain + poor-to-horrible back ventilation
Today nearly all photo packs still use a Pressure Panel (PP) which separates you from your precious cargo and puts CONSTANT pressure on all or parts of your back, NOT a good thing as this invariably creates “hot spots” where your pack’s weight creates high pressure, high heat and poor blood circulation. This often results in not just your back (and butt) quickly turning into a sweaty mess, but in pain that radiates out (neck, shoulders, lower back, hips, knees) which turns your hike into anything from an unpleasant experience to a nightmare. Luckily Deuter (born 1898) obliterated this archaic concept 35 years ago by inventing a brilliant system that keeps your pack very close to your back, but not against it. They did this by replacing the full or partial PP with a Tensioned Mesh Panel (TMP, sometimes called a “trampoline” panel) that connects at the top with an internal curved frame made of a special lightweight steel which bends in (towards your center of gravity) as you add weight to the pack. At the bottom the TMP seamlessly connects to a wide, gender-specific, anatomically-shaped, wrap-around-your hips ventilated belt that comfortably rests on your iliac crests. When your TMP pack is properly loaded and adjusted, this system eliminates pressure points (hot spots) altogether, allows for true back ventilation and moisture management (no more of that often-highly-acidic sweat dripping out back and resulting in anal burns or yeast infections,) spreads the load just about perfectly, and keeps the pack contents cool, all of which makes even a long hike a pleasurable experience. This system has since been copied by Osprey, Gregory (I’d avoid Paragon models,) REI, Lafuma, Lowe, and many other brands.

2 - Poor-to-horrible harness
The other critically important part of your bag’s efficacy and structural integrity is the harness. Here’s a pretty good primer on why this matters and on what the outdoors industry has been offering for years:
https://mountainsforeverybody.com/what-is-meant-by-backpack-harness-adjustability Now... you’d think that in 2019 a photo bag that is supposedly designed to hold thousands of your hard-earned dollars of gear would not be digging into your shoulders or hips after a couple hours’ hiking, right? You’d think this bag would also have properly designed shoulder straps (correct ergonomics, sufficient padding) and such basic features as adjustable torso length, load lifters, etc. in a word follow, basic harness standards just like all the good hiking packs do, right? Well, you’d be wrong.

3 - Current photo pack trends: designs that range from idiotic to plain dangerous
The latest fad among photo bag makers has been to push designs that give you “safe” access to your cam gear via a U-shaped zipper on the back of your pack. A total of 15 of our members were gullible enough to fall for the hype on this design (including me, oops!) Here are our stats after using such bags on hikes:
- 1 large “hike-killer” zip tear. On a muddy trail one of our members slipped and had a mild fall. This is common and she wasn’t hurt but when she got up, there was such a big hole on the side of her bag that we could see half her lenses! Turned out the back zipper that covers the ICU inside had ripped. We decided to turn back and our friend spent a painful 8 miles back to camp holding her pack out front, best she could.
- 3 laptop screens (Apple, Dell, Lenovo) that cracked under the thinly-padded PP backpanel pressure.
- 1 laptop (Apple) that burned up - back pressure on the laptop chassis thru the thin PP shorted out the battery, which started the fire, with the entire contents of the pack turning into a nasty smoldering blob. Luckily for our friend, his wife was just behind him and she screamed at him to drop his bag when she saw the smoke.
- 3 flooded bags. On this particular hike 11 of us left base camp and headed out to a high mountain pass rich in flowers and wild animals. Two hours into our journey the skies opened up. We thought it was a typical strong-but-short mountain shower, made a pit stop to put on rain gear and bag covers and pushed on, only to realize that the rain just wouldn’t stop. The trail was getting slippery so we turned back and made a careful descent that ended up lasting over 4 hours in rather dangerous conditions. As we got back to our tents and started changing, we heard a scream followed by a bunch of expletives. We rushed out to our friend Mike’s tent. He has just unzipped his photo backpack and found his 15K of photo gear (2 bodies + top-end lenses) soaking in what looked like a gallon of water which had clearly sneaked in there through the zipper (his rain cover was on, the zipper was intact.) Upon carefully examining all packs, we realized that the two other PP “photo” packs also had taken at least 1 liter of water through the zipper: one with luckily no consequences (sealed Fuji gear), but the third one was also a big financial loss since the photo gear wasn’t sealed. 7 of the 8 TMP hiking packs were bone dry (the rain just runs down the space between your back and the pack) and the last one had minor water ingress at the very bottom, most likely because it had a generic rain cover that wasn’t a very good fit (the Osprey Atmos comes without one.)
Anyhow, this backpanel zipper access is also a truly idiotic idea from an engineering standpoint. At the end of the day, realize that your precious photo gear is only separated from the elements by a thinly-padded panel surrounded by a zipper, in an area (your back/lower back) that constantly sees huge amounts of pressure and friction. Can a zipper handle that for years of hiking? Highly unlikely. Heck, sealed panels barely can!

4 - Hydration: not much better
Many photo packs claim you can hike with them but very few let you carry more than one water bottle in a sensible way. Well, you won’t hike very far with that amount of water, so... another big fail here. But it gets worse! Regardless of the clever marketing words used (“breathable”, “ventilated”, “air channels”, etc.) your body conducts heat quickly into the interior of all PP packs. If you carry water in a hydration pouch/bladder (the good ones do not leak, but they all are a PITA to keep clean and bacteria-free) as in some photo packs (LowePro, Atlas, TTP, etc.) that water becomes tepid, then warm. I’ve done it, it’s just nasty. Contrast that with a TMP pack where the pouch slides in its hydration sleeve, just behind your back but separated from it by the tensioned mesh. The water stays shaded and cold there for a very long time. Same thing with the Nalgene bottles I prefer to use (3+ of them on hikes over 1 day.)

5 - No photo packs made for women
Hiking pack makers recognized decades ago that ladies have breasts and differently-shaped hips and shoulders (duh!) and built packs for them. Photo pack makers still have not. ‘Nuff said.

6 - Easy target for theft
Many cities around the world are plagued by highly-organized teams of thieves who are extraordinarily good at stealing your stuff in crowded areas (it’s especially bad in Paris where gangs from the Balkans use kids and teens.) Just like they are trained to recognize all luxury purse brand names, these gangs know photo bag brands and you become a target the second they see one. Special mention here for Atlas, an otherwise interesting new manufacturer that sadly plasters their brand name in huge size on their photo packs: really tacky, and really dumb (they might as well put on a big sign that says... STEAL ME!)
Tip: if your hiking pack doubles as your main travel pack, you can also become an obvious target in train/bus stations and in all those touristy areas infested by professional thieves. In such cases I always put the raincover on and I only use my pocket cam (hipbelt) and/or my bridge cam clipped to the shoulderstrap. I also keep money and important papers in a hidden pocket.

SO... IS THERE A SOLUTION THAT DOES WORK?
The good news is that such a solution (used now by every single member of my group) does exists: you simply adapt the TMP hiking pack you like best to your specific photo gear. It’s easy and the entire setup is far more comfortable, far more versatile, and far cheaper than a similar-volume photo pack. There are many possible variations but to give you concrete examples, here are the two rigs I currently use the most, as do many others in our group:
A - Pack for 1-2 days hikes (30-40 Liters): Deuter Futura Pro 40 (3.5 lbs) or female version (38SL)
B - Pack for multi-day/multi-week hikes (60+ Liters): Deuter Vario 50+10 (4.5 lbs) or female version (55SL)
Both these packs have a rare feature (long, nearly invisible side zipper bellow pockets with rain flap just above the side mesh pockets) and offer unparalleled flexibility in accessing your photo gear.

On the top-loader Futura you have 7 locations, all of which I’ve used at various times:
#1 Hipbelt pocket: pocket cam. I use the other side for glasses and energy bar.
#2 Bottom compartment and #3 top of bag, below flap: small ICU ("photo cube") or “portable ICU” (see below)
#4 Lid pocket: 2-4 lenses or body + zoom
#5 Stretch mesh pocket: extra lens or light bridge cam (I use the opposite pocket for my Nalgene bottle.) Fast and easy access, just reach back and pull.
#6 Side zipper pockets: 1 lens up to 11 inches long (28cms) and 4 inches diameter (10cms) or 2-3 shorter lenses. Note that I’ve never needed to use both sides but if you have tons of lenses, you can.
#7 The Large front stretch pocket is perfect for us photogs because unlike others, Deuter uses the stretch fabric only on the sides. This means you can slide a cam with a zoom or long lens in there, even with the lens shade on. It will rest against the tough fabric in the center without tearing the mesh.

On the Vario, you have 8 locations:
#6 is bigger: 1 lens up to 12.5 inches long (32cms) and 5 inches diameter (12.5cms) or 2-3 shorter lenses
and you have #8: Big U-shaped two-way zipper with rain flap on front panel of bag: large ICU

- Tripod. Here you have 5 options with both bags: #7 above, the hiking pole attachment loops (small bungee cords with locks), the compression straps on both sides, or #4 loops if you so desire.

- The side zipper bellow pockets in effect give you side-access which is nice for those who prefer not to place a lens in a side mesh pocket, yet prefer side-access for frequent lens changes. With a bit of practice it’s easy. Right-handed description: unbuckle the front straps, remove the right shoulder strap, slide the bag around to your front just a bit, reach around your left arm with your right hand, run the zipper down and swap lenses.

- My own preferred quick-access setup is to clip my bridge cam or ILC with most-used lens to a Cotton Carrier G3 StrapShot secured to a shoulder strap. It fits more strap sizes than my Capture Clip 3 which is a beautiful piece of gear but tends to damage the strap padding. I also find the StrapShot much more comfortable with heavy lenses and the padded hand strap that came with is very good. Others use the Keyhole Harness which keeps your cam centered on your chest. I’ve tried it and it’s works very well too.

- These days, when I bring ILC gear, my preference is to use my old Lowepro Nova 2 belt/shoulder bag as sort of a portable ICU. It’s built extremely well, easily takes 1 body + up to 5 lenses), has a belt loop for use as a side holster and its size (10 inch W X 6 inch D X 10 inch H) means that it easily slips in and out of both Deuters. When I use it with all lenses inside it’s on the heavy side, so I fasten it to the front of my pack which balances the weight nicely and gives me the added bonus of having a “fake tripod” (I set my elbow on top.) I also use it as a shoulder/sling bag to go and explore when we get a chance to set camp early in the day. This gives me the best of both worlds, I have all my cam gear handy when I need it, and I easily put it away when I don’t.

Observations about these particular 4-seasons Deuter packs
- Both have many straps and attachment points for extra kit. Among my favorites are the 4 loops on top of the lids that make it a breeze to attach my solar panel - I use it on any hike that is 2 days or more, I consider this an essential safety feature because my location tech (GPS, Sat) is always charged, along with of course my photo gear.
- The combination TMP + ergonomic “huggy” hipbelt is so good at spreading the load that you literally feel only about half the weight you’re actually carrying. I once compared my Futura Pro 40 with my featherweight, twice-as-expensive UL backpack by loading both with 20 pounds of hiking and photo gear and hitting a technical, 30 mile trail with a buddy of mine. The temp was 80 degrees fahrenheit. We swapped bags at the half-point and compared notes at the end. We both concluded that the Futura still felt like we were only carrying about 10 pounds by mile 15, plus it kept our backs dry. We both were also shocked to discover that the “superlight” UL pack quickly created painful hot spots (by mile 3 for him, mile 5 for me, you could actually tell from these hot spots where the heavier camera gear was) and by mile 15 it felt like we were carrying 25 to 30 pounds of gear, and with drenched backs. This little experiment sure put the 2 lbs “weight advantage” of my UL pack in an entirely different light...
- Like most Deuter bags, these models can reliably take far more weight than their “max. recommended” load.
- They also vastly exceed the minimum harness standards described in the linked article above because they have an advanced version of the TMP that allows the shoulder and hip anchor points to pivot, in essence closely following your movements (as opposed to the “big hard lump” feel of traditional PP packs.) This adds even more comfort as well as safety on steep or tricky trails since you are far less likely to lose your balance. They also give you class-leading back ventilation. Lastly, the torso length adjustment on the Vario is the best and easiest I’ve ever used.

Other observations
- Another great option used by some of us is to place your cam + most frequently used lenses in a belt pack (fanny pack) which you slide around to the front of your body once you’ve fastened it. The locked buckle then sits in the space just behind your lower back, yet another thing you absolutely cannot do with a PP pack. This solution also permits super-quick access to your cam.
- Folks with a large-ish waist/girth (36" and above) can attach more lenses/pouches to their hip belt.
- The latest REI Traverse bags have water bottle pockets placed low, just behind the hipbelt pockets, a feature that can be super useful for us photographers since you can slide a cam with lens/hood straight or an extra lens in there. It’s the easiest cam side access I’ve experienced.
- “Squeakers and flappers.” Even high-end hiking packs can have the type of quirks that will ruin your hike. Osprey makes great packs but they are well-known for sometimes squeaking like a hellish little animal, every step you take, and... sometimes not. This is almost certainly due to their choice of an aluminum frame to save a few ounces but anyhow, I’m here to tell you, this squeaking drives you insane! Do test your Osprey for this as soon as you get it. The “flappers” (strap ends that have no sleeves or plastic ring to slide into and flap against your body all day long) are also a pain and quickly become a safety issue when you are bushwhacking since they snag easily on branches and thorns, so watch out for that. There are workarounds, but all straps on my 20L Quechua bag (8 euros at Decathlon in France) have sleeves so there’s no excuse for a $150+ pack not to.

TIPS & TRICKS
- Must-have #1: small sandwich or ziplock bags in hipbelt pockets (take no space and waterproof the contents when it rains, remember that these pockets sit outside your rain jacket) + 3 garbage bags (take no space either but have countless uses, from giving you a dry spot to sit, to allowing you to harvest that large spread of chanterelles you just came across while bushwhacking... Yum!)
- Must-have #2: small pouch with Tenacious Tape, 4 aluminum mini biners, 2 feet of soft tie, 3 feet of paracord, mini cord locks. Same thing here, the weight is negligible and the usefulness out in the wild is huge.
- If your bag comes with no rain cover, buy anything but those cheap Chinese ones. The fit is very poor and the waterproofing even worse. A cover from your bag manufacturer is money well-spent.
- Always carry some type of good water filtration on hikes over 1 day.
- If, like me, you occasionally cinch your sleeping bag or pad to the bottom of your pack, make sure you use a waterproof compression sack since even your manufacturer-provided rain cover will not do a good job of protecting anything below the bottom compartment in heavy rain.
- Properly loading and adjusting a pack to your morphology can be difficult. Unless you are very experienced, always go to your local outdoors shop to try out that new bag. The good stores have at least one experienced backpacking staffer as well as 10lbs sand bags. Many will also let you bring your old bag, help you transfer the stuff to the new one and even throw in that rain cover for free or at cost. If the bag you want is not in stock, they will order it for you. Do give small shops your hard-earned money, we need to keep them in business!

Questions are welcome (kindly stay on topic.) I’d also be happy to give feedback on a specific pack as long as you give me the following basics: photo gear and other gear you’ll haul, type of terrain/region and length of your hikes (in days and miles or kilometers), temperature range of your hikes, and of course your budget if you don’t yet know which pack might work best for your situation.

Happy trails, friends !

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