New Brunswick Journalist & Writer
New Brunswick Journalist & Writer

The Truth About Camera Backpacks

The truth about camera backpacks is they’re universally shit. There is not one on the market that is properly designed for hiking. At one time there was the Clik Elite Large Hiker, but Clik Elite went out of business several years ago. The camera compartment on that bag was quite small.

We all have preferences for the type of bag we like to use to carry our kit. For me, a pack is most useful.

I have been hiking and camping since I was 12 years old. I’m 57 as I write this. I’ve used a lot of hiking packs and I’ve been through a lot of camera packs in my 2+ decades as a photographer. For years I have challenged camera pack makers; publicly and privately, to let me tell them why their packs suck. None have had the confidence in their products to do so. That’s being polite.

There are some that are better than others. Still, there is not one that is actually good for hiking. In fact, my current pack, the LowePro Powder 500 AW nearly got me killed on a hike in January 2020. ‘A pack nearly got you killed’, you’re thinking? ‘Surely you jest.’ I jest not. And don’t call me Shirley.

I was hiking along a rim trail at the top of a gorge. The trail went right along the ledge with no fence, or other barricade. My foot slipped on the snow and sent me off balance a bit. The fabric of the cinch straps on the shoulder harness is very smooth and doesn’t hold properly in the buckle. The sudden weight shift caused the strap to loosen significantly throwing the pack off-centre and putting me further off balance. What saved me? My dog pulling on his leash acted as a counter-weight and allowed me to regain my own balance. Without him, I would have gone over a 200 foot sheer cliff; because of a poorly designed & poorly manufactured backpack. Try doing that with a cat, cat people. Ha!

The Truth About Camera Backpacks, RF-Photography
That’s Lincoln. A very good boy!

Let me walk through some of the issues. After that, I’ll show you a solution that may work for you.

The Straight Dope on Backpacks

The Truth About Camera Backpacks, RF-Photography

Let’s take each one of these in turn.

Available in Different Sizes

Just like we have clothes in different sizes for different sized people, one size of backpack won’t fit all body types properly. Packs are sized differently to fit different torso lengths. This is important for comfort, helping prevent fatigue and preventing injury.

Have an Adjustable Harness System

The adjustable harness system is another way to customise the fit to different torso lengths. If a pack isn’t available in different sizes, it probably has an adjustable shoulder harness system. Some have both for the ultimate in attaining the proper fit.

Available in Men’s and Women’s Sizes

Women’s clothes aren’t just smaller sizes of men’s clothes. Women have different body shapes that need to be taken into account when designing clothes. When we’re talking about backpacks, women’s packs are designed for the, generally, more narrow shoulders of women.

Particularly slight men may also find a women’s pack fits them better than a men’s pack. There should be no shame in that. Similarly, women with larger frames, larger shoulders, may find a men’s pack fits them better.

Better than men’s and women’s we should more properly refer to these as ‘narrow’ and ‘standard’.

Have a Proper Support Frame System

This is essential for comfort, preventing fatigue and injury.

Packs designed for hiking have an aluminum, or fibreglass internal frame (they used to all be aluminum and external) that does several things.

First, it helps provide structure to the pack to keep it sitting on your back properly. Second, it helps distribute weight across your shoulders and back. Third, it will work in concert with the hip, or lap belt to distribute weight from the back and shoulders and onto the hips. The hip bones are the largest, strongest bones in the body. Carrying most of the weight of a pack on your hips will allow you to be more comfortable and less tired at the end of the day’s walk. It will also mean less chance of injury; either from strain of muscles, ligaments and joints, or fatigue. Injuries are much more likely to occur when you are tired.

Good frames will also be contoured to allow the pack to fit closer to your back. Some will have a small curvature that fits in the lumbar region of your back to provide additional support.

There are a number of camera packs that have come to market in recent years that are rear-opening. The makers tout this as an advantage. They claim it prevents you having to put the back of the pack on the ground, possibly in wet and mud, and getting you wet and dirty when you put it back on. This is bullshit! Most of these rear-opening packs are a colossal pain in the ass to open and close. The shoulder straps get in the way of the zippers, making getting at gear more time-consuming that it needs to be. With this rear-opening it’s simply not possible for the pack to have a proper support frame system. Having tried, and garbaged, a Vanguard Alta Sky 53 pack (it should be illegal to produce a pack that bad), I’d recommend avoiding rear-opening packs. The LowePro Powder is rear opening as well. It’s marginally better because the rear flap is smaller and the shoulder harness doesn’t get in the way… as much. It still sucks.

Can Carry a Laptop

Let’s be perfectly honest: You really don’t need to carry a laptop when you are hiking. You just don’t.

Camera packs that are designed to carry a laptop mean the design is compromised. A laptop pocket means it’s very difficult to employ a proper frame system.

We often do want to take a laptop when travelling. It can be taken separately and kept in the vehicle, or lodgings.

On a multi-day hike where you’re not going to be at a vehicle each day, or you’re not going to be at a hotel/motel, or similar lodging, carry multiple memory cards and wait until you get to a vehicle, or return at the end of the trek to offload your pictures. There are also portable backup/transfer options that will let you offload image files each day without having to carry a laptop.

If you feel you must carry your laptop in your pack, once again, don’t.

If you really feel you must carry your laptop in your pack, buy a separate sleeve, put the laptop in that and put that in the pack. Really though, just don’t. It’s excess weight you don’t need.

Compatible with a Hydration Bladder

Pretty much any pack has outside pockets that let you carry water bottles. You can also do it the old-fashioned way and carry a canteen in your pack, or fastened to the outside. This is not a must-have in a pack, it’s just a nice-to-have.

Hydration bladders are cool. They let you drink without having to take the pack off, or fumbling around trying to get at a bottle in a pocket. Having a hydration bladder also lets you keep both outside side pockets open (most packs have these). One can hold the tripod. The other can still hold a water bottle for someone else, or for your canine companion.

Many traditional hiking packs today do have a pocket for a hydration bladder. There are a few camera packs that do as well.

That pretty much covers the important aspects of pack design. You can see, pretty easily, why camera packs don’t stack up.

There’s one thing that you may feel is missing in my list: a lap, or hip belt. I mentioned this in the Support Frame System section above. Yes, it is a must-have. No pack should ever be considered without a good hip/lap belt. It should be well-padded and flexible, but not too soft that it compacts, or crumbles under the weight of a full pack. That doesn’t mean the padding has to be thick. If the right type of foam components are used, it can be thin and still do the job properly. This is not the place to discuss types of foam padding and which one(s) to look for. If you want to go nerd-deep into foam, check out this article.

The Solution

Now that we have established that camera packs truly do blow chunks, what can we do about that fact?

Here’s something else about camera packs: Like pretty much any other photo-related accessory, camera packs are obscenely-priced for what you get.

This idea may help you get a better pack overall and save you some $$ in the process.

There are, essentially, two types of hiking backpacks on the market. There are top-loading packs and there are front-loading packs. Front-loading packs are also called panel-loaders.

In a top-loading pack, you cram you junk in from the top. Simple, right? Just like it sounds. In a front-loader, the front panel of the pack zips open and you load your stuff in more like a suitcase. Which is better? That’s a Canon/Nikon-like debate among hikers. A good panel-loader is just fine. Finding a good one can be difficult.

Many top-loading packs have a separate compartment on the bottom which is often used for the sleeping bag. Deuter makes some front-loaders with a divider to separate gear and a sleeping bag, or clean and dirty clothes, or food and clothes… you get the idea.

The size of the sleeping bag compartment will vary depending on the capacity of the pack. Smaller pack, smaller compartment for the sleeping bag. The pack I’m using to demonstrate is a 65L model. My LowePro Powder 500 AW is a 50L pack, for comparison. You may also see packs noted as bottom-loading. These allow you to access the main compartment from either the top, or the bottom. Bottom access will be through the sleeping bag compartment.

The Truth About Camera Backpacks, RF-Photography
Side by side size comparison

The camera box in the LowePro is 11″x11″x6″ deep. That removable box fits into the sleeping bag compartment of this Outbound Canyon pack (the Canyon is also available in a 45L version), although it’s slightly different in terms of aspect ratio, so it’s not a great fit. Outbound is a Canadian gear company. They produce generally decent gear at fairly reasonable prices. Their stuff isn’t top-of-the-line and often doesn’t have the latest technology. I was able to get this pack for $100 Regular price is $141. This one has an internal aluminum frame (fibreglass is lighter), is compatible with a hydration bladder, and in addition to being available in two sizes, it has an adjustable harness system. It ticks basically all the boxes.

My Sigma 120-300 f/2.8 just fits in the camera box of the Lowepro and there isn’t a lot of room left for much else. The same lens fits in the camera box I made for the Outbound and as you can see in the pictures below, there’s still room for lots of other gear.

How did I make a camera box for the Outbound. Why, with a bit of ingenuity and some simple, everyday items, of course. The cool kids call this a ‘hack’. What I’ve used is a standard camp sleeping pad, some Gorilla Glue and some Gorilla Tape.

The Truth About Camera Backpacks, RF-Photography
DIY camera box

Cut the sleeping pad to create ends, sides, and if you want a bottom for a camera box. Use the glue to attach everything together and you have created your own padded camera box customised for the pack you are using. Once everything was glued together, I used the Gorilla Tape on the seams for additional support. It also gives the box more structure and rigidity. Lastly, I cut another piece for a top so that the box is padded on all sides and fixed that to the box just with tape acting as a hinge.

Dividers? Sure. Cut a few more pieces of the sleeping pad and simply insert these between different pieces of gear. What about Velcro, you ask? It isn’t really necessary if the box is full; and let’s be honest, it will be since photographers find it absolutely necessary to carry a shit-ton of gear with them. The various camera bodies, lenses and other stuff will hold everything in place. If you want, you can add Velco. Buy some Velcro strips at a fabric store, cut to size and glue onto the ends of the dividers. Glue some strips inside the camera box to fasten the dividers to. You can, if you wish, glue a couple strips of Velcro inside the compartment of the pack and a couple on the outside of the camera box to hold the box more firmly in place. Alternatively, you can cannibalize dividers from your current camera pack.

The Truth About Camera Backpacks, RF-Photography
Fits my 120-300 f/2.8 + a body + 2 other lenses + 2 teleconverters

The upside? Even a really good hiking pack will cost less than one of the, alleged, top camera packs. Also, if you’re not taking photo gear on a camping trek, you can simply remove the camera box and have the full pack available to you. You get to buy just one pack instead of (at least) two.

Where do you put your sleeping bag? Where do you put it if you take one on a trek with your camera pack?

The Truth About Camera Backpacks, RF-Photography
Sleeping bag? No problem!

Where do you put a tripod? Traditional hiking packs have all manner of straps, slings, pockets and attachment points for carrying other gear like ropes for climbing, axes, picks, shovels and such. Any of these can accommodate a tripod.

The Truth About Camera Backpacks, RF-Photography
Tripod and snowshoes attached

This does put more weight at the bottom of the pack, which is not optimal. You generally want heavier items higher up (not above the shoulders) and next to your back. This does get the heavier things next to your back, which is good. Since all camera packs I’m aware of put the camera gear at the bottom, it’s a trade-off I’m willing to live with.

Even with the camera gear in the bottom compartment, there’s still room for the pack rain cover, a stowaway insulated jacket and a rain shell jacket.

The Truth About Camera Backpacks, RF-Photography
Still room in the lower compartment for other things even with the camera gear

If you were to go with something like the Deuter panel-loader, you could put your clothes and other items in the bottom, below the divider (which would also provide support for the divider/shelf) and your camera gear in the top part. To access the camera gear, you then would only need to unzip the top half of the front panel, leaving your clothes and other gear zipped in. The downside of that is the top compartment is larger, so you have less room for clothing, food, and other camping needs. The Deuter Trekking series are panel loaders up top with a separate, zippered sleeping bag compartment on the bottom, much like top-loaders.

Here’s another upside of this approach: It doesn’t scream CAMERA GEAR. Yes, if you’re carrying a tripod it’s a bit of a tell. If you’re not; however, a standard hiking pack isn’t a dead giveaway for cameras and related kit and may mean less interest from people looking to make a quick buck stealing bags in an urban setting, a café, train station, airport, or similar places and fencing the goods. Another negative to camera bags is that they look like camera bags making you more susceptible to theft.