How to use your backpack’s waist belt with Side Bags for quick front access to your photo gear

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Chris 222 Senior Member • Posts: 1,704
How to use your backpack’s waist belt with Side Bags for quick front access to your photo gear
4

This is an addendum to Article 5, Solution 4, of this thread…

BEST BACKPACK / RUCKSACK FOR HIKING PHOTOGRAPHERS (2021)

… where I talked about a DIY (Do It Yourself) solution I use for quick front access to ILC gear at waist level (using my old LowePro Nova 2 as a “portable ICU.”) This tutorial describes how to adapt a bag for such use. As always, members of my community made very helpful contributions. While some of them have designed their own, far more complex solutions, those require special tools and expertise so I will stick here to our “standard”, super-simple solutions.

Tutorial Objective: adding two long belt loops to a small to medium gear bag to make it super easy to pull it out of your backpack and carry it safely and comfortably at your side(s) on any walk or hike. We simply call these SIDE BAGS.

A – Where to start?

First, measure the height (looking from the side) of your preferred backpack(s)’ padded waist belt. Because these are often “tapered” you need to measure it at two locations:

Height 1 (H1): at point A, where the belt connects to the pack’s lower frame

H2: (often shorter/smaller) at point B, where the belt padding meets the beginning of the webbed belt itself (the one that ends with a male or female belt buckle and snaps shut roughly in front of your navel.)

Note that these measurement can vary quite a bit. On our small Deuter Futuras H1 is 5 inches but on the big Varios it’s nearly 6 inches. On the small Gregory I use as a chest-carry pack (see Article 5, solution 5) it’s 5.5 inches at H1 but that drops off quickly (making step 6 below crucial) and there’s also little belt padding. The Quechua MH500 has a much “flatter” design, etc.

B – What bags should you use?

Basically anything you like: a large pouch, a small to medium-sized shoulder bag, an ICU (the LP Gearup mentioned here works well), a holster bag, etc. We have found only two categories of bags that do not work: those made of fragile “pleather” (fake, “plastic leather”) and those that are very rigid, since you want the part of the bag that will rest against your side to have some degree of “give” so that it will somewhat conform to the slight curve of your body.

Important

– You do not want a bag that is wider than the distance between points A and B. If you do that, the front of the Side Bag will tend to slop at an angle onto your front webbed belt.

– We have found that bags with a width not exceeding 10 inches (~ 25 cm) work best. However, you can go wider if you have a girth (waist line) above 40 inches.

– Some bags already have a belt pass-through (two loops or a “tunnel”) but these, being designed for standard belts, are usually no more than 2 inches long (tall), nowhere near enough to go over a backpack's padded waist/hip belt.

C – Where can you find such bags?

Before you rush to buy (yet another?) bag, consider my own stats about the 17 small and medium photo packs I still own (I have a few more large ones which I had bought for video shoots with those humongous old video cams, back in the day, plus two large drawers full of smaller bags and pouches):

– Only four have standard (short) belt loops that will go over your pants’ belt.

– Only one (a small Tamrac 601 bought in the eighties) has a long belt loop (5 inches, covers the entire height of the bag’s back, see picture below.) I ran a poll with my community, where many people own far more bags than I do, and only three others also found within their stash, an old model that has a long belt loop. But, you may wonder, what about newer bags? Well, I did the homework for you and I looked online at every brand and model I could possibly find. The results? Not a single one has a long belt loop. That’s the bad news…

– The good news is that you can easily retrofit most small to medium bags to slide over your backpack’s padded waist belt, and chances are you already own one or more such bags… Time to look inside those old closets! Frankly, I myself had no idea that I could actually retrofit another 5 bags, should I ever need to.

Just for reference, here are the capacities (inside volume, main compartment) of the 3 Side Bags pictured in this article:

Little beige Tamrac 601: 2.4 liters

Black Minolta (got it with a Minolta cam bought eons ago): 4 liters

LowePro Nova 2 (bought about 15 years ago): 5 liters

D – Supplies you need

1a) A quality punch hole and a wood block (I strongly advise hard wood such as oak or maple, prepare for horrible holes with frayed edges in your bag if you use soft wood!) plus four 5/8 inch long, 1/4 inch diameter round-head bolts, four 1/4 inch locking nylon nuts, four 3/4 inch diameter fender washers and four 1 inch diameter fender washers.

Note that standard rivets do not work. There is only one guy in my community who has successfully used rivets for this project but he says that even though he used his professional Press Riveting Tool with large, special-order rivets, he still doesn’t feel comfortable loading his side bag with more than 5 pounds.

OR

1b) One leather sewing kit with an awl, needles and a roll of waxed thread cord. These are easy to find online but your local Fabric Store will probably have the higher-quality stuff, not to mention knowledgeable staffers.

2) The strapping material you will use to make the 2 long loops that will go over your pack’s waist belt. Look for a strap that is at least one and a half inches wide, strong (most woven or webbed materials are fine) but soft enough not to dig into the side of your body when you hike with bare chest or mid-riff in hot weather.

Ideal sources are:

- old pants belts (woven fabric/poly blend or soft leather.) Chances are that you will have far more choices among women’s models. If you don’t find any around your house, ask friends and family, you might be surprised at how many belts sit around, unused!

- old camera shoulder straps.

- unused luggage straps, etc.

3) Sharp scissors

E – How to make and install the 2 long belt loops that will slide over your backpack’s padded waist belt

First, decide:

a) Do you want to have the bag’s lid open against your body, or away from it? Truth be told, the latter is rarely possible since there are very few shoulder or holster bags that do not have a zippered pocket, an overlapping lid, buckles, etc. on their front panel. Fastening your new loops to this panel would obviously make using these features impossible: not good.

b) Do you want to install two new loops of the same length, in which case you can use your bag on both sides, or two new loops of unequal lengths, in which case loop A is longer than loop B. The latter gives you a tighter fit, but I would advise against it because it is really nice to have the flexibility to use your Side Bag on either side of the waist belt. This also makes it easier to use it with different backpacks, obviously a huge plus. As you will see, we have several ways of preventing the side bag from sliding off anyway.

Option 1A

For the purpose of this step by step tutorial we will assume the “standard” setup with 2 loops of the same length fastened to the rear panel of your Side Bag:

[Quick reminder for our non-Imperial friends: 1 inch = 2.54 centimeters]

1 - Place your backpack on a table with the backpanel facing up and place your small bag next to its bottom, rear panel facing up as well. Now close the pocket zipper on that side of the waist belt and place it on top of the small bag’s rear panel with the top of the waist belt roughly 1/2 inch below the top of the rear panel. Make a T1 mark at half an inch from the top (or T1 + T2 if you will carry heavy loads, see below.) This is where your upper bolt will go (see pictures.)

2 – Grab whatever wide belt or strap you have decided to use and place one end at the very top of the side bag’s rear panel, run it over the padded waist belt and down toward the bottom of the backpanel, keeping it snug but not too tight. Make one mark L1 at half an inch below where the loop meets the rear panel. This is where your lower bolt will go. Note that even with heavy gear, only one bolt is needed here since the lower part of the loop is not load-bearing.

3 – Draw a line two inches below the L1 line and cut the strap with the scissors there. Yes, this gives you an excess 1 1/2 inches but leave it alone for now as you may decide that L1 is not quite low enough after testing your side bag. You may also desire to punch one or more holes later in order to be able to adapt your side bags to larger backpacks. You can always snip the slack anyway.

4 – Take your side bag to a work bench or a concrete pad, put your hard wood block inside the bag and place your two new long belt loop strips vertically on the rear panel. How far apart should they be? The consensus is 4 to 6 inches. More than that and your side bag will not be able to slightly curve in and follow the contour of your body.

Using a sharp 3/16 inch Hollow Puncher and your hard wood block, punch holes at T1 and L1 through both the strips and the rear panel of your bag. It is perfectly okay to place L1 on the bottom panel in case your side bag is not quite tall enough (see black bag photo below.)

Tip: if you’ve never done this before, be sure to first practice punching holes on an old bag and strap.

5 – Insert each bolt assembly through the holes (yes, the holes are slightly smaller than the bolts in diameter, but this is on purpose) so that all parts are in the following order, starting from the inside of the bag:

Bolt head, 1 inch diameter fender washer, bag’s rear panel, strap strip, 3/4 inch diameter fender washer, 1/4 inch locking nylon nut.

Option 1B

The steps are the same, except of course #4. Instead of punching holes, you stitch/sew the 2 strips to the rear panel. Be sure to run your sewing patterns tightly (the 1/4 inch open-cell foam that constitutes the bag’s padding should be compressed hard.)

TIPS

A– The hip belt pocket should still be usable for fairly flat, non-compressible objects. I personally keep my pocket knife in there.

B – If your Side Bag’s load exceeds 10 pounds (~ 4.5 kilos) I strongly recommend that you use a wider loop (2 inches or more) each with 2 top bolts. Another cool trick is to add a standard school wooden ruler at the top of the rear panel, connecting the four top bolts (just snip the extra length off.) This adds very little weight but spreads the heavy load much better across the top of your backpack’s waist belt.

C – Most shoulder bags come with a long, adjustable strap. You can of course remove it, but if you’re like me you want to keep it for when you just need to go on that quick photo outing after setting camp. So what I do is simply run the shoulder strap snug below the bag and then shove the excess length inside the right side pocket, stash it below or behind the Side Bag, etc. )see pics.)

D – If your bag came with a rain cover, adding the 2 long belt loops does not majorly impact its effectiveness. If it did not, simply keep a small, high-quality trash bag at the bottom of your side bag as I do. It takes no space and works great.

E – To avoid any potential issues with the inside bolt heads scratching your gear, cover them with snap-on bolt caps or with an extra layer of ICU divider material (I don't since I've never had any problem.) If you’re still not happy, use Option 1B.

F – Once you have inserted your waist belt through the 2 long loops, I strongly recommend that you always fasten your side bag to the backpack frame near point A. This will prevent the Side Bag from ever sliding forward when you drop your pack or simply bend down to tie your laces. What you want to do is connect the Side Bag’s rear Triglide or D-ring (the one used to attach the shoulder belt) to any lash point on the bottom or lower side of the backpack. How? You have many options: Carabiner, Elastic cord or Paracord with hook or cord lock, a short compression strap, etc. (see pics for examples.)

SIDE BAGS: WHAT WE LIKE

Superb Convenience and Practicality

Ready to shoot? Pull your Side Bag(s) out of your backpack, slide it over your waist belt, fasten it to the pack and you are done: all your gear is now front-accessible, be it for an hour or all day long. Lens swaps are a cinch, and you can easily have more than one rig ready to shoot instantly. Many of our members routinely use two side bags, typically one for WA (Wide Angle) gear and one for Tele gear, both of which go back in their DFV60 backpack (Deuter Futura Vario 50+10, see Article 2 for review) when they are done.

Excellent Load Transfer plus Improved Posture

The weight of your side bags rests on your hip bones, one of the strongest part of your body, and in front of your CG (Center of Gravity) plane. This allows you to stand more erect than when you had all that weight inside your backpack, which improves your posture and your gait. This in turn reduces fatigue, as I have experienced myself on many long hikes.

Lighting Fast Access

Your side bags are always there, right where you need them. No blindly reaching back to try and grab that rig or those lenses via that much-hyped “side access” feature (you’d have to be a contortionist to see what’s back there, which the manufacturer claims of course never mention…)

Better yet, they do not get in the way of using other smart solutions. An old friend of mine routinely hikes with 3 MFT rigs at the ready. One EM1.3 with zoom clipped to a Universal Keyhole nicely centered on his chest, another EM1.3 with 300mm + TC in a side bag, and a EM5.3 with that awesome 8-25 mm in the other side bag. I’ve also hiked with a birder friend who still uses two of his beloved but huge DSLR Tele rigs, each stashed inside at his side inside a very long holster case.

Great Versatility

You can turn pretty much any bag you have into a side bag, as long as it’s no wider than about 10 inches (more if you have a very large waist line.) Better yet, you do not have to use those bags just for photo gear. Some of our members use them for holding snacks for the kids, stashing trash on trail cleanup day, receptacle for berries and other harvested wild foods, holder for water bottles, container full of nuts and acorns for feeding squirrels out in the woods, etc.

More f-stops

One noticeable benefit of these Side Bags is that you can use them as a resting point for your elbow on certain types of shots, which easily gains you several stops. In fact, you gain up to 10 stops in total if you combine this with a stellar IBIS such as the ones found on MFT Olympus gear (one of the reasons it’s used by the majority in my community, along with that incredible WR, portability, high IQ, etc.) A side benefit of this is that you tend to leave your tripod at home, meaning less weight to carry, and less things to worry about!

Theft protection

It is literally impossible for a thieve to do a “rip-and-run” or “slash-and-run” on a side bag fastened to a wide hip belt as described in this article.

Low cost

You should be able to find the hardware needed for Option 1A for under $5. As to Option 1B, a good cobbler or upholstery shop will stitch the two loops you bought him/her for about $10, often less.

WHAT WE DO NOT LIKE

Your Side Bag sticks out to the side several inches more than a full standard belt pocket does. If your shooting routine involves short walks/hikes or moving slowly between shots, this won’t affect you. If, like us, you tend to hike at a good clip between shots, your normal arms swing is affected since you have to keep your elbows out. Not a big deal though, you get used to it pretty quickly.

How Side Bags compare to other front-carry, WAIST-LEVEL solutions

Versus the same bag simply slung over the front part of your backpack’s belt (if it has short belt loops, which few bags actually do)

This is something we have tried and the results are not pretty! Assuming you are willing to deal with the fact that your front belt buckle becomes really hard to access, you now have a bag that bangs against your crotch area on every step: not fun especially if you are a guy (your dangly bits will not appreciate!)

Versus daisy-chain attachments and belt pouches

I personally love daisy-chain lash points – also called M.O.L.L.E (Modular Lightweight Load-Carrying Equipment) or M.A.S. (Modular Accessories System) – but there is a reason why manufacturers are rarely ever using these on waist belts anymore: waist belt pockets are far superior in terms of practicality (just unzip and you have instant access to whatever’s inside) and comfort since the contents will not bang against your side while you walk as they do inside pouches (those are usually too small for cam gear anyway.) Of course, belt zip pockets are also small, way too small in fact, but hey, we are solving that problem here.

Versus camera clips

Clips such as the Spider of CC actually work well on a wide, strong pants’ belt (at least you’re not totally crushing your expensive backpack’s padded shoulder strap…) even though they do not prevent your rig from banging against your body on anything but super slow walks. The problem most of us have found is that wearing such a belt plus a backpack’s wide and padded hip belt is super uncomfortable, not to mention that you loose access to your cam clip unless you wear the pants belt extremely low, in which case it cuts into your lower abdomen on every step.

Versus a photo bag like the Mindshift Rotation

To its credit, the Mindshift Rotation 180 is one of the rare photo bags that is more than just a fancy, horribly overpriced ICU with shoulder straps schlepped on. It has a clever lower compartment that can rotate from your right lumbar area to the front, which is in theory pretty similar to a Side Bag. In practice however, while the rotating compartment works well, you cannot use it with any other bag at waist level. And we have also found serious issues such as the sweat-inducing Pressure Panel that also creates pain points on your back (not even close to being in the same league as a TMP), the thin waist belt, no rain cover, etc.

Versus a Waist / Lumbar Pack

Both systems have roughly the same functionality but while Side Bags can be used with both PP (Pressure Panel) and TMP (Tensioned Mesh Panel) packs, as long as they have a wide, decent waist belt, Fanny Packs only work well with TMP packs. More on this on a future article that will bring you the results of our tests of the leading waist packs.

Deuter Futura 50+10 with 2 Side Bags

CONCLUSION

Making your own Side Bag is a great, easy DIY solution. It is extremely cheap as well as hugely more comfortable, protective and versatile than most other options.

Okay folks, that’s about it. If you have found this tutorial helpful, simply click the little thumb-up thingy at top right. Have fun with this little DIY project, you might be surprised at how much it changes your photo outings!

As always, on-topic comments and questions are welcome.

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Chris
Links to a few resources I published here to help my fellow photographers:
R1: BEST BACKPACK / RUCKSACK FOR HIKING PHOTOGRAPHERS (2021) https://www.dpreview.com/forums/thread/4574941
R2: Most versatile ICU (camera insert) for backpacks and other bags https://www.dpreview.com/forums/thread/4585593
R3: How to make your own custom dividers for any photo bag or ICU (Internal Camera Unit) https://www.dpreview.com/forums/thread/4594146
R4: Reviewed: Cosyspeed mini-pouch, hand strap, waist / sling bag, powerbank https://www.dpreview.com/forums/thread/4585015
R5: Best carry on wheeled backpack you've never heard of https://www.dpreview.com/forums/thread/4446343

Olympus E-M1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T2
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