Accessories Talk Forum
This is a significantly updated and re-organized version of my 2019 article.
- While I’ve made every effort to clarify and simplify, these articles are not a quick read and are best viewed on a tablet or larger screen. So, if your life revolves around a small phone screen and/or you have the attention span of a gnat, there’s just way too much information for you below! To all others, grab your favorite drink, read as much as you can (chronological order is best) and come back for more later.
- I have used and tested too many brands to have any sort of allegiance to a single one. I am not an “influencer” who tested a backpack for a few hours (or miles) either and I am paid by no one. I have been made aware that my initial article, which as always strived to respectfully but honestly report our findings, irritated a number of manufacturers, most of whom, by the strangest coincidence, made all sorts of misleading or false claims. Those who still do, should not be surprised if I keep “telling it like it is.” Those who might be tempted to seriously improve their products, not to mention their image and branding, by perhaps being more thruthful and showing a little more respect for their potential customers, are welcome to send me prototypes or revised products. They will be thoroughly and fairly tested (please contact me via PM, see FAQ 1 for our testing protocols.)
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 ponds (mostly USA, Asia and Europe for me.) Over the years I have met like-minded colleagues all around the world and many have become dear friends. We form a fairly large entity (over one thousand hikers) 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. Thanks to our high level of mutual 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 offered by most brands. 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. I/we do not accept any monetary compensation. Any reviewed equipment that has been provided by a manufacturer will always noted as such near the top of the article.
Looking for your next hiking + photo backpack (called “rucksack” in many countries)? What follows is based on a considerable amount of actual experience(s) and might help you.
1) A jaunt to the zoo or a walk to that scenic area a couple miles up from the parking lot is not “hiking.” The good news is that all packs follow the same principles and these articles contains info that will also help occasional hikers and folks who do city strolls with their photo gear and need a truly comfortable, ventilated photo pack.
2) Hiking is used here as a general term. Others might call it hill-walking, backpacking, trekking, mountaineering, etc., for us it’s all semantics. We’d much rather focus on the joy of using our (quite agile, thank you!) feet and (beautifully sculpted, thank you very much!) legs to capture what’s left of our beautiful wild world via photos or videos.
BREAKDOWN OF POSTS / ARTICLES
Post 1 (this one): Fundamental flaws of “dedicated” photo backpacks Post 2: Our multi-days TMP “reference” photo hiking backpacks
Post 3: Photohiker 44, a TMP backpack with photo inserts: Cosyspeed revolutionizes the industry
Post 4: Review of 9 TMP daypacks for hiking photographers
Post 5: Solutions that work for quick FRONT access to your photo gear
Post 6: Backpacks for hiking and general use: quick FAQs and tips
Fundamental flaws of “dedicated” photo backpacks
While some of us still own dedicated bags (I have a room full of Domke, Kata, Lowepro, Tamrac, Tenba, Think Tank, etc. bags, plus tons of pouches, ICUs, and other accessories) none of us uses their expensive “photo packs” for hiking (or much else) anymore. Why? Because, while some of these manufacturers do offer clever features, their bags still have one or more of the following major flaws:
1 - Contact (pressure) backpanel = pain + horrible back ventilation
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 technology as it 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 outing to a nightmare (there are countless reports of photographers and hikers equating this experience to ‘carrying a brick”, “hauling a big hard lump” etc. after sometimes just 20 minutes.)
2 - Poor to pathetic harness
The other critically important part of your bag’s load transfer 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 2021, a photo bag that is 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 (good ergonomics, sufficient padding) and such basic features as a wide hipbelt with pockets for our small photo gear, in others words, follow basic harness standards used by all the good hiking packs for decades? Well, you’d be wrong.
3 - Current photo pack fads: designs that range from absurd to plain dangerous
Fad #1: “Rear” access
The latest fad among photo bag makers has been to push designs that play on some customers’ theft paranoia and claim to give you “safe” access to your cam gear via a U-shaped zipper on the backpanel of your pack. They also claim that you can open your backpack “even if the rain cover is on,” neglecting to tell you what we have experienced, which is that after sometimes just a few minutes of pouring rain the backpanel is soaked like a wet rat and there is already water ingress where the two zips meet (see Post 2.) Besides, opening the pack to switch lenses and such in the rain is something most photographers never do.
A total of 15 of our members were gullible enough to fall for the hype (including me, oops!) and here are our stats after using such bags:
- 1 large “hike-killer” zip tear. On a muddy trail one of our members slipped and had a mild fall that resulted in such a big tear on the side of her bag that we could see half her lenses. Turned out one edge of the back zipper had completely ripped.. We decided to turn around and our friend spent a painful 8 miles back to camp holding her pack out front, best she could.
- 3 laptop screens that cracked under the thinly-padded PP backpanel pressure (Apple, Dell, Lenovo.) This was of course inside photo packs that place the laptop compartment in the dumbest possible place, just behind your spine and therefore constantly exposed to its 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 pack 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 wouldn’t stop. The trail was getting slippery so we turned back and made a careful descent that ended up lasting 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 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 in significant 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 and the last one had minor water ingress at the very bottom, most likely because it had a generic rain cover that had no drain hole.
Anyhow, this backpanel zipper access is an absurd concept from a gear protection standpoint. Understand that your precious photo gear is only separated from the elements by a thinly-padded panel surrounded by a zipper (one dirty little secret about “strong and waterproof” zippers is that they are always tested without pressure exerted in any direction) and in an area (your back/lower back) that constantly sees large amounts of pressure and friction. Can an inherently fragile zipper handle such forces for long? Highly unlikely. Heck, standard backpanels on some hiking packs barely can!
Fad #2: “rolltop” access
So far this trend is less common, but it’s a real doozy too. It reminds me of the hype around of all those “tactical” products, like the “tactical” underwear my neighbor recently bought (FAQ 14.)
4 - Hydration: what hydration?
Many photo packs claim you can hike with them but very few let you carry more than one (small) water bottle in a sensible way. Well, you won’t hike very far with that amount of water, so we have another big fail here. But it gets worse… Regardless of the clever marketing words used (“breathable”, “ventilated”, “air channels”, etc. More on this below) your body conducts heat quickly into the interior of all PP packs. Whether you carry water in a hydration pouch/bladder (the good ones do not leak, but they all are a pain to keep clean and bacteria-free) or in bottles inside your photo pack, that water becomes tepid, then warm. It’s just plain nasty to drink.
5 - “Breathable”: a big fat lie
We live in a world where industries routinely make false advertising claims with zero consequences (at least in the USA.) Most brands of photo packs, hiking packs, running shoes, sports apparel, etc. use the term “breathable” for their stuff. Any English major or any astute person will have noticed that they do not use the term “BREATHING” or ‘VENTILATED”. Why, huh? Because they would then have to prove and quantify the actual ventilation! Don’t let their lies fool you, their products “breathe” very little and most of the time, not at all. PP packs, for example, have zero “breathability” on all their pressure points, which is to say, most of their contact surface with your back.
6 - No photo backpacks 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. Most photo pack makers still have not. ‘Nuff said.
7 - Easy targets for theft
Many cities around the world, along with certain busy trail heads, are plagued by highly-organized teams of thieves who are extraordinarily good at stealing your stuff in crowded areas (in Paris, gangs from the Balkans use kids and teens!) Just like they are trained to recognize luxury purse and luggage brand names, these gangs know photo bag brands and you become a target the second they see yours (Atlas makes things worse by plastering its brand name in huge sizes: really tacky and really unwise.) In my large community we have never experienced a single successful “slash and run” or “rip and run” attempt on a TMP pack (it’s impossible to do as long as the strong hip belt is buckled, so the thief moves to an easier target.) The exact opposite is true for photo packs, we’ve had too many incidents to count, which is not very surprising given that some do not even have a hip belt.
8 – Sky-high prices
Finally, keep in mind that none of these packs have the sophisticated TMP technology, which makes their high (nearly all brands) to astronomical (Fstop) pricing, even more baffling.
Bottom line: photo backpacks do not work for serious hiking and still have too many downsides, even for casual use. The good news? There are far better (and often cheaper!) alternatives.
PS: – Please stay on topic. I will have this thread removed if it falls prey to OT or trolling.
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- You have read all 6 articles and you still have a question about a specific sentence? PM me or post with quoting that sentence only.