If you’ve been an outdoor photographer for more than a few minutes you’ve likely already encountered the conundrum faced by almost every single one of us: how do I carry my photo gear while hiking? Do I wrap it in a jacket and stuff it in my daypack? Do I wear it around my neck and then work out the kinks later at the chiropractor? Maybe I should pack it into a rolling suitcase and tow it down the trail? Don’t laugh – I’ve seen it. While you could settle for any of these solutions there are far better alternatives available to us these days. In the last couple of years an assortment of backpacks have been brought to market that allow outdoor photographers to carry camera gear in an organized and protected manner while also providing room for hiking essentials like water, snacks and extra clothing. So now the dilemma is, which photo backpack do I choose? Well folks, I’m here to help you answer that question.
I obtained backpacks from four of the premier manufacturers of photography packs: f-stop gear, Lowepro, Clik Elite and Mountainsmith. Each company agreed to provide me with a backpack to use, abuse and review. That was six months ago. Since then I’ve loaded up each pack with my camera gear and used them in the mountains, canyons and deserts of Utah and Wyoming. I didn’t feel like I’d get to know the packs if I only used them once or twice. I wanted to put in some time with each pack, hence the extended review period.
There are no winners or losers here. Backpacks are a subjective thing and for me to say that you should all run out and buy pack “X” would just be silly. We’re all built differently and we have different needs, so the point of this review is to help you identify a pack that is most likely to satisfy your individual requirements.
I tested four packs for this review: f-stop gear Tilopa BC, Lowepro Rover Pro 35L AW, Clik Elite Contrejour 35 and Mountainsmith Borealis AT. For reference, I’m 5′9″ tall with a 32″ waist, 30″ inseam and a 19″ torso, which is the most important measurement when determining correct pack size. I don’t travel light. On any given day hike I’m usually lugging around a 25-30 pound backpack. Finally, I always carry my camera with one lens attached in a Clik Elite chest pack. I carry the rest of my gear in my backpack, including three extra lenses, a 550EX flash, a set of Pocket Wizards, three filters, extra batteries. a HoodLoupe, a collapsible 5-in-1 reflector, and a few small, miscellaneous items. This set-up provides me with immediate access to my camera without first having to remove my backpack.
Before we dig into the comparison, let’s review some terminology and things to know when shopping for a pack. The suspension is the overall system that attaches the pack to your body, which includes the shoulder straps and hip (or waist) belt, as well as whatever structure connects all the straps to the pack. Some brands use plastic sheets while others use aluminum or plastic rods. The hip belt is a belt (usually padded) that wraps around your hips and buckles in the front at a point that is typically just below your belly button. A good backpack suspension system will transfer the majority of the pack weight to your hips – not your shoulders. For a more in depth look at backpack technology and a great tutorial on how to properly fit a pack, check out “Backpacks: Adjusting the Fit” on the REI website.
Lowepro Rover Pro 35 AW ($299)
Lowepro is the grandfather of the photo backpack business. They’ve been manufacturing packs for over 40 years and have outfitted some of the most influential photographers in modern history. However, until the recent release of the Rover Pro 35AW and its bigger brother, the Rover Pro 45AW, I didn’t feel their packs truly met the needs of outdoor photographers who spend hours trekking through difficult terrain with camera gear on their back. I’ve logged many miles with the Rover Pro 35AW and I’m here to say, Lowepro’s got a keeper. The single most important factor in determining whether I love or hate a pack is how my back feels after a long day on the trail. The Rover Pro 3AW fits me well and afforded a very comfortable carry. An adjustable shoulder harness allowed me to fine tune the fit but the pack won’t provide an optimal fit for those with torso lengths greater than 19″. The Rover Pro 35AW ships with one modular removable camera case that includes a second, small pouch for accessories such as extra batteries or filters. On the downside, the camera case was too small to carry ALL of my extra gear. An integrated rainfly is included and stows into its own compartment on the bottom of the pack. It is easy to access and deploy. A tripod attachment system on the side of the pack provides a stable method of transport for that critical piece of nature photography equipment. If you prefer to carry your tripod in the middle of the front of your pack, you’re out of luck as there’s no good way to do it. There are small bungee straps on the front panel that allow you to stow trekking poles or an ice axe when not in use. If you wouldn’t be caught dead wearing an ugly pack, fret not: the Rover Pro 35AW is quite handsome without drawing undue attention to itself and your expensive gear. The pack includes a dedicated pocket on the side for a water bladder, which is cool, except that it will only fit a small bladder. Pockets on the waist belt for the win! I honestly don’t know why every single backpack on the market doesn’t have pockets on the waist belt as they are the perfect place to carry small stuff that should be easy to access like snacks, lip balm or even a point and shoot camera. There’s even a stretchy shove-it pocket on the front of the pack. A few things I wasn’t crazy about: the hip belt straps are excessively long and hang down to my knees when the belt is cinched tight. The lid pocket is so small that it’s pretty much full with only a headlamp, a couple granola bars, a pair of gloves and a Leatherman stuffed inside. Accessing your camera gear via the front panel requires you to lay the pack on the ground with the back panel and shoulder straps in the dirt, mud or snow, guaranteeing that you’ll get your back dirty when you put the pack on again.
All things considered, the Rover Pro 35AW is a top performer with many great features from a respected company with a reputation for building high quality gear. The adjustable harness means this pack will fit a wide variety of photographers, excepting those who are really long in the torso.
Clik Elite Contrejour 35 ($359)
The Clik Elite Contrejour 35 is the only pack in this review that provides two ways to access your camera gear: from the side or via the back panel. Side panel access allows you to keep the pack slung over one shoulder as you swing it around to retrieve your camera. I didn’t use this feature because I carry my camera in a chest pack but for those who don’t, I can see how this could be a useful feature. With no adjustable harness the pack is more limited in the range of torso sizes it will fit. It was borderline too small for me as the waist belt had a tendency to ride up and off my hips while hiking. The Contrejour 35 is rated at 29.5 liters (which is strange given the 35 in the name) but it seems much more roomy with a large, padded camera bay, a seemingly bottomless main compartment that can be accessed from the top or the side, a large front pocket with two memory card pouches and yet another small, zippered pocket in the main compartment. There’s an integrated rain fly on the bottom of the pack for when the weather turns wet. A dedicated bladder compartment on the back panel holds large bladders and is easy to access for refills but my Camelbak 100 ounce bladder gave it an odd, semi-rounded shape when full of water that made for an awkward fit. I think a different bladder brand with a wider profile might mitigate this issue, though. My Induro CT213 tripod carried well along the side of the pack with the legs tucked into a deep, stretchy mesh pocket. If you’re a skier or snowboarder, the Contrejour 35 has straps on the front for attaching skis or a board. There are no pockets on the waist belt nor is there any good way to carry a tripod on the front of the pack.
If the Contrejour 35 fits you I think you’ll be quite satisfied. Access is the name of the game as all pockets and compartments are easy to get into and two of them even provide two ways to get to your gear. Materials are top-quality, there’s a ton of room for camera gear and hiking essentials, and it’s all assembled into a nice looking package.
Mountainsmith Borealis AT ($189)
At $189, the Mountainsmith Borealis AT is the most affordable pack in this review. The design team at Mountainsmith has learned a thing or two about how to make a good backpack over the last 30+ years and they’ve infused much of that knowledge into the Borealis AT. It’s got the best tripod carrying system of the bunch with a fold-away reinforced pocket that seems indestructible. The camera compartment is located at the bottom of the pack, is heavily padded to protect your gear and opens in a unique clamshell design that provides totally uninhibited access to your equipment. But, since the tripod is carried on the front of the pack you have to remove the tripod to access your camera gear. I appreciated that the interior is bright yellow, making it nearly impossible to lose small parts. The Borealis AT has a padded laptop compartment and several additional pockets that will make even the biggest organization geek happy. Sadly, none of these pockets are very big which means I can’t recommend this pack for all day epic outings. I tried stuffing my Mountain Hardwear puffy jacket into the biggest pocket and after a bit of cursing it finally fit, but it took up the entire space. My biggest misgiving with the Borealis AT is that it simply doesn’t fit my torso. The waist belt wrapped around my belly – not my hips. On a positive note, there are two small pockets on the waist belt and it is well padded. The Borealis AT fit my wife’s 16″ torso perfectly, so it could be an ideal pack for anyone with a small torso. The Borealis AT comes with a rain fly that fits neatly into its own pocket at the top of the pack but is a little more challenging to deploy because of a narrow zippered opening. There’s no dedicated bladder pocket but the laptop compartment (without a computer in it!) worked just as well.
Bottom line: if you’re short of torso or budget you should take a hard look at the Borealis AT. Very high quality materials, a super stable tripod carrying system, a reasonable price and several other thoughtful touches make this pack a worthy competitor.
The backpack reviewed was a 2012 model. A new version is now available that is claimed by Mountainsmith to address some of the issues I mentioned. I have not tested this new pack and can not confirm their claims.
f-stop gear Tilopa BC ($405)
The f-stop gear Tilopa BC is the biggest pack in this review at a monstrous 48 liters. At that size, you’re bound to see the pack weight skyrocket as you stuff it full of gear. Luckily, the Tilopa BC is up to the task of carrying ridiculous loads in comfort – if it fits. It’s a perfect fit on me but it’s way too big for my wife and since the harness isn’t adjustable if it doesn’t fit, you’re out of luck. The Tilopa BC utilizes a modular Internal Camera Unit, or ICU, to carry and organize camera gear. Available in a range of sizes this modular approach allows you to customize the pack to suit your needs. Access to your camera gear is through the zippered back panel, which helps to keep the area of the pack that contacts your body free of dirt and debris. The lid pocket is big enough to hold most of the “Ten Essentials” and what doesn’t fit there, will surely fit in either the huge main compartment, the large front pocket or the other, smaller front pocket. There’s an integrated bladder pocket on the inside of the main compartment and MOLLE straps on the hip belt that make it easy to attach extra pockets. The bottom and front of the Tilopa BC is lined with Hypalon, an extremely durable and abrasion resistant material that stands up well to rough granite and slickrock. Tripods can be carried on either side of the pack or the front but the side pockets are so shallow that my tripod feet frequently slip out. There are two small bungees on the outside of the front pocket that allow you to carry trekking poles or an ice axe. A small pocket on the bottom of the pack is designed to stash a rain fly, which does not come with the pack, but can be ordered for an additional $15. Honestly though, when you’re paying $405 for a pack, I think it should come with a rain fly…and waist belt pockets. Maybe even a llama to carry the load.
The Tilopa BC is a full featured pack that carries a ton of gear and heavy loads in comfort – if you’ve got a medium to long torso. It’s well made, durable and offers many options for customization through the use of interchangeable ICU’s and additional pockets that can be added to the waist belt and shoulder strap. If the price doesn’t turn you off, the Tilopa BC is an exceptional pack.
With all the great pack options on the market today it’s easier than ever to carry your photography gear into the backcountry. I hope this post helps you find the right pack that helps you get even more enjoyment out of photographing nature!