Why I don’t need a photo backpack

…at least not when (day) hiking. A critical look from a hiker’s perspective. I link to certain products in this article – and no, I’m not getting paid for it. 🙂 Linking is what the internet is about, and that’s why I do it.

First: I do have a photo backpack. It’s a Naneu K4L (they don’t make it anymore), and it has served me well (I have it for something like 4 years now, I think) and I still use it every now and then – but mainly when I’m out for shorter hikes and photo outings that are not strenuous.*

Second (the “someone’s gotta say it” part that some will find blasphemous): I do think that photo backpacks that are (also) meant for hiking/backpacking are quite often either not up to the task, or insanely overpriced** (or both:-). Of course, that depends on a number of things, like the carrying comfort you’re expecting, the amount of gear you want to carry, etc. – but believe me, I’ve looked at a great many backpacks and I know pretty much exactly what I need, and I keep coming back to my normal hiking backpack.

The key features that I’m looking at are:

  1. carrying comfort
  2. accessibility of the camera gear
  3. size of the “daypack” compartment (for the non-camera things)

My hiking backpack is a lot more comfortable to wear when I put the same amount of gear in it compared to my Naneu K4L. There might not be a big difference at the beginning, but after a couple of hours on the trail, things start to look a whole lot different. Why would I put extra strain on my back with a “special” camera backpack that is nowhere near as comfortable, but maybe a little more convenient for carrying photo gear?

When I’m on day-hikes with camera gear, I’m using my normal hiking backpack. That’s an over 10 years old Deuter “Air Comfort Futura 42” (the 42 stands for the volume in liters) – it’s probably long discontinued, the successor that I found on the Deuter website is most likely the “Futura Pro 42” – it looks very similar to mine, except for the color. So let me explain how I use it.

Where does the camera go? Around my neck, of course! I’m out to hike and to make photos! If I really need to stow the camera away (say, when it starts to rain heavily) I wrap it in a towel, or I put it into a small and lightweight shoulder bag that I might carry (inside the backpack). I’m not using the Nikon-supplied neck strap***. I’m using a Crumpler “The Industry Disgrace” strap. Padded. Soft. Thick. Much better.

Where do the lenses go? I usually only carry three lenses when I hike: a wideangle zoom (the 16-35/4VR), a fast and lightweight prime (the 50/1.8D), and a telezoom (the 70-300VR). I don’t need the fast prime very often, so it’s stowed away in one of the side pockets of the backpack. Either the wide angle or the tele are on the camera, and the other lens is in a lens pouch that’s attached to the hip belt of the backpack. I can switch lenses back and forth for handheld photos (thanks to VR) without having to put down the backpack.

Where do the filters go? The polarizers and close-up lenses (plus a step up ring 67->77 to fit them onto the tele) are in a small filter pouch that’s attached to the other side of the hip belt of the backpack. My ND filters (3 stop, 6 stop, and 10 stop) are in one of the bellows side pockets of the backpack (with a zipper) – using them usually requires using a tripod as well, so I do not need to have them accessible all the time.

Where does the tripod go? I tuck one of the tripod legs into the small flexible pocket at the bottom/side of the backpack, and fix the entire rig to the side of the backpack (over the pocket in which the ND filters are) with one of the side compression straps of the backpack. (and I protect the tripod head with the pouch that RRS supplied with it.)

Where do the accessories go? Extra battery, cable release, micorfibre cloth, lens-pen etc. are in the other flexible (mesh) pocket. Extra memory cards and other more delicate accessories are in the smaller lid pocket at the top of the backpack (they can be closed with a zipper).

Where does the water go? (yes, that’s not a camera accessory, but it’s vital;-) It’s in a water bladder. The backpack has a compartment especially for that. If you’re still carrying these plastic bottles, consider getting a water bladder instead. It’s so much more convenient.

So by now, all the essentials are either nicely stowed away, or I have them easily accessible, ready to be used. You probably noticed that I did not mention the (two) main compartment(s) of the backpack – because they’re still empty! I have plenty of room for extra clothes, a sleeping bag, food and other supplies that way. And that’s why I don’t need a special photo backpack when I’m out hiking. Here’s what it looks like. 🙂

Hiking Little Lakes Valley
Hiking Little Lakes Valley in the Eastern Sierra. You can see my backpack here, with the tripod at the side. I have Toni’s leash on the hip belt of the backpack (that way, I have both hands free even when I have to leash her). Photo by Shuwen.

Over time, I’ve done quite a number of hikes with a “backpack setup” like this, or quite similar to this. I’ve been on long day-hikes in the German and Austrian alps, and on some overnighters in the German alps (where the hiking infrastructure allows for quite comfortable hiking with all the refuges and hostels in the mountains).

*) the one thing that drives me nuts is the way it opens: the camera is in the lower compartment of the backpack, and you slide the upper (daypack) compartment to the back to access it. That means the back of the pack (that touches your back) as well as the shoulder straps touch the ground. Not a big deal when the ground is clean, but in dry and dusty Southern California, that is hardly the case. Also, one of the zippers or the K4L broke last year, after about 3 years of usage – while all the zippers on my Deuter bag are still working, after more than 10 years. I’m just saying.

**) the backpack that I’m using (described above) has an MSRP of $159. Compare that to a similar pack from fstopgear (most likely, the Tilopa BC with 48 liters volume, $349 for the shell alone) and you know why I’m saying “overpriced” (that’s without one or more of their “ICU’s” that you need for the camera gear).

***) that thing sucks, and I don’t like to be part of Nikon’s extended marketing. By that, I mean Nikon’s black strap with bright and yellow “NIKON D700 [FX] zOMG LOOK AT ME!!!” letters on it. Sorry, not gonna happen.


1 Comment

  1. About time someone wrote it all down! Thanks for doing so.
    I enjoy long hikes and comfort is essential since I have a quite bad back. I've never really liked camera backpacks, especially those that are with one strap, I don't know who would do such a horrible thing to their back and neck. I use a Lowepro backpack [two straps + laptop compartment] – very comfortable on my shoulders, but it's not that good for longer hikes, since there's not much space for food and water, and accessing the camera/lenses requires putting the backpack down, and that gets annoying after some time.
    I've used only Tashev hiking gear – http://tashev.bg/index.php?language=en and so far I haven't found more convenient backpack than the hiking type. [I even use one of their compact models for everyday, school and weekend travels and it's been good for about 8 years now]


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