Recently I was doing a bit of downsizing and decided I wanted to refine how I organize my gear when on the road. I thought it might be helpful to share my findings for those who are still on the fence picking out a new camera backpack or those on the quest for that “perfect” bag. I do have a surprising collection of bags in my office from that particular quest and I’m sure I’m going to find it one of these days! However, I think I’ve found one that’s pretty darn close.
For years I had been using Gura Gears bags as I really liked their light weight materials and durability. However a few years ago I was lured over to Think Tank Photo’s sister company Mindshift Gear, more out of curiosity than anything. At the time I was in need of a smaller bag for short day hikes and picked up one of their Photocross sling bags. I was very impressed with the thoughtfulness of design and functionality, it also turned out to have some great durability.
Eventually I switched over from the Gura Gear bag I was using at the time to Mindshift Gear’s Firstlight 40L as my main bag for travel. Right away I noticed a big difference in comfort when hitting the trail. The Mindshift Firstlight 40L is designed more like a traditional hiking backpack with adjustable torso system and more heavily padded straps. This makes a big difference for those trying to get a proper fit where the bag rides properly on the hips, distributing the carrying weight more efficiently and comfortably. Here’s my review on that bag and two others.
One of the most comfortable bags I have hiked with, hands down! With the adjustable torso feature and heavily padded straps, this will fit just about anyone looking more for a traditional fitting hiking backpack. Its storage space is huge, allowing you to fit some pretty large telephotos if you are so inclined. I usually carry two bodies with a wide angle and 100-400mm attached along with 2-3 other lenses, filters, flash and other miscellaneous essentials. This thing swallows all of that up and then some. The durability has been good as well. After a couple years of heavy use, no rips or tears and frankly it doesn’t look like it’s been used much. All good signs.
Now a few thing I don’t like. The main front zipper access is just one big opening, allowing for things like filter holders, batteries, snacks, a light weight windbreaker, etc., but not great pockets for organization nor very much space. It also has access for a laptop, but with very little to no padding. I’ve never traveled or hiked around with a laptop in there, so I can’t say how it would hold up, just not a feature I would use on this pack. When I travel, especially when leading workshops and trips, I like to have an extra rain jacket, maybe a super lightweight down jacket, first aid kit, GPS, water bottle, some snacks and a few miscellaneous items. Very few packs are designed to carry a lot of extra stuff other than camera equipment and this has always been one of my main gripes. This bag does OK there, but it would be a nice if it was a little more roomy in the extra compartment area. It does have an additional side compartment that has storage for smaller items.
Pros: Super comfortable, will carry a ton of photo gear, very durable, will carry a full size Nalgene bottle in its side pockets
Cons: Not as many options for organization with extra compartments, doesn’t carry much non-photo gear
For anyone not familiar with Gura Gear’s bags, they were created in 2008 by photographer Andy Biggs and in 2014 aquired the Tamarac company. They are extremely lightweight bags designed for international travel, specifically photo safaris. The secret of these bags was not only the super durable lightweight sailcloth material used in their construction but also the butterfly design opening with two separate gear compartments allowing photographers to avoid exposing all their gear when opening in harsh environments. Also, it allowed for great organization with many photographers carrying a large telephoto on one side and the rest of their gear on the other. You could also stuff a surprising amount of gear in these and still be able to get on a plane. These bags were awesome and I’ve used just about all the different models they’ve had over the years. Recently they released a new bag, the Kiboko 30L 2.0 which pays tribute to their first bag the original Kiboku that started it all, of course with a few revisions. I decided to give this one a try on my quest for a slightly slimmer bag. Everything about this bag is very similar to the first. The use of sailcloth material, butterfly opening option and carrying handles. The front compartments are designed a little differently now allowing full zipper access (previous models only allowed partial zipper access). The bag size has been slightly altered from the original, not only in depth and width, but also slightly in length. So it’s a little tighter fit. Especially for pro size bodies like Canon 1DX or Nikon D5, just doesn’t have the depth it should for these.
I like a lot about this bag, the design is similar to their others with the great lightweight sailcloth, which is extremely durable and seemingly indestructible. It is the lightest of these three bags, coming in at just under 4lbs, one of its main selling points. Organization is great in the front pockets for filters, batteries, cards, etc. However there are a few drawbacks and reasons why I returned it. There isn’t much space for carrying any extra non-photo gear like a jacket or anything else you might want to stuff in the front. This bag was specifically designed for those out on Safari, shooting from a vehicle and for air travel, so its lack of room makes sense. This backpack is also not the greatest on the trail either, especially when hiking more than a few miles. I have hiked with theses bags a lot over the years and they are tolerable but not the greatest in comfort.
Pros: Great for air travel, very organized system for photo gear, durable, super lightweight
Cons: Not a lot of extra space for non-photo gear, uncomfortable for hiking, shallow depth
Right around the time I was looking at new bags, Mindshift just released their new and improved Backlight series with the 45L Elite. I had tried the regular Backlight 36L a couple years back and had preferred the volume of the Firstlight 40L at the time. Now that I was looking to travel with less gear and looking for more functionality, the Backlight 45L Elite looked like it might be the ticket.
Right away when packing up this bag I knew it was going to work perfectly. A ton of thought has gone into this bag, I mean a ton. All of the little nit picks, gripes and complaints I’ve had with outdoor photo backpacks have been addressed.
For one I can stuff a ton of non-photo gear in this pack. The front opening is huge! On my last trip I had everything I needed with room to spare. Rain jacket, rain pants, lightweight down jacket, first aid kit, gps unit, snacks, hat, gloves. No problem. You can even slip in a laptop if you’re so inclined. The top of the pack also has two extra compartments as well. This make going on longer hikes or leading groups nice, because you can have everything you need with you on the trail. Holds water bottles, has good tripod carrying system and even features a cool little miscellaneous side pouch on the waist belt for holding snacks, memory cards, or whatever you want.
One other thing I want to touch on is its construction. It’s made from lightweight sailcloth material, which is totally bombproof. I love this material and it’s one of the reasons I liked Gura Gears bags so much. It’s also the thing that got me excited about this bag enough to try it out. This cloth is a good choice paired with a back opening pack like the Backlight 45L Elite. The front of the pack is going to be set down on the ground a lot and will take some serious abuse over time. So far I’ve taken this bag on a few workshops through rainforests, beaches and mountains environments with plenty of dust, rain, rocks and mud and it’s holding up fantastic.
The main internal function of this bag is made up of removable compartments that hold all your photo gear. This can be configured for different uses. You can opt for a small removable compartment that will allow you to carry much more non-photo related gear, especially if you want to do some overnighters with this bag. If you want to carry a ton of camera equipment you can get a larger insert that will take up all of the internal space. I have the original insert that came with the bag and you can see in the photo below how much stuff I have crammed in here. This insert does not fill up the whole internal space and allows for a little extra room up top acessed by a top zipper.
Fit and comfort are very good on the Backlight 45L Elite. This bag however does not have an adjustable torso system like the Firstlight 40L does, so everyone’s fit is going to be different. I’m 5’10” with an average torso length and this fits me very well. The waist belt rides on the top of my hips and fits like it should. So your results may vary. The straps on this are pretty good, but not as comfortable as the Firstlight, but definitely better than Gura Gears. In overall comfort I would probably give this an 8.5/10 and the Firstlight a 10/10.
All in all, the Backlight checks all of my needs as an outdoor photographer. It’s a rugged pack that will hold a wide variety of photo gear, a lot of non-photo gear, great organizational compartments and isn’t an overall huge pack. It’s tall but its depth and width are slimmer.
The only downsides I can find is the lack of torso adjustment( for obvious reasons), slightly less comfortable than the Firstlight 40L and weighs a little bit more than the other two packs. The added features and design of this pack are enough for me to overlook the extra weight.
Pros: Lots of extra space, great organization, rugged, comfortable, customizable
Cons: Slightly heavier than some bags, no available torso adjustment, could use better padded shoulder straps
Volume 45 liters
So if you’re looking for the ultimate outdoor pack, the Backlight 45L Elite may be the one that’s right for you. If you want one that’s the ultimate in comfort and holds the maximum amount of gear, the Firstlight 40L would be a great choice. If you’re primarily shooting out of vehicle and doing a lot of airport to vehicle trips, the Gura Gear Kiboko 30L 2.0 is a pretty sweet bag to consider.
There are a lot of other options out there for photo backpacks, especially smaller ones, these just happen to be a few I’ve recently tried. You may look at Think Tank Photo or F-Stop bags if you don’t find one with Mindshift or Gura Gear. For now I think I’ve found the one that’s as close to perfect as it gets, for now:)