4 Outdoor & Adventure Photo Packs
Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. For this crowd, size doesn’t matter anymore; these days it’s all about accessibility and versatility. As more people take cameras into the wild and document their own adventures, they want packs that are comfortable to wear all day long in highly active situations and rugged environments. Also, they want a pack that fits more than just camera gear.
Modern offerings look less like traditional photo packs and more like technical outdoor packs. They’re not simply big bags with just one main compartment. Many of them have a main camera compartment, as well as a separate upper compartment where you can stash your outdoor essentials—jackets, food water, insulating layers, etc.—you know, the stuff that’s necessary to get you through the adventure you’ll be photographing. They also feature advanced and highly breathable suspension systems, back panels, shoulder straps, and waist belts, and most of them are built to be compatible with your hydration system.
The most innovative aspect of these new designs is the way the camera compartment is accessed by the photographer. Usually it’s by way of side zipper or flap that’s built into the bottom side of the pack. To reach your gear, you simply sling the pack or part of the pack around so that you can reach the main zipper. The idea is that you can quickly reach your gear, even if you’re perched on highly precarious terrain. Not only is this method quick—you can get your camera into your hands within a few seconds—but it also allows you to get your gear even if your situation prevents you from removing and setting down your pack. It’s all right there within easy reach.
I for one am very excited about this new breed of photo packs, and I’ve taken full advantage of the new designs. I’ve found them so much more comfortable and useful when I’m doing things like skiing, hiking, biking, and climbing, and after using this style of pack, I could never go back. I think you’ll find the same to be true for you.
For this review, I’ve chosen to highlight four different models, the Lowepro Photo Sport 200 AW, the f-Stop Kenti, the MindShift Gear rotation180° Panorama, and the Manfrotto Pro Light 3N1-35 PL. They’re all good packs, and each of them features rugged, outdoor-worthy construction and a unique design that incorporates the dual compartment idea. Rather than do a straight comparison, I’m going to run down the features for each one, let you know how it performs in real life outdoor situations, and tell you for which kinds of activities or photography I think each one is best suited.
Lowepro Photo Sport 200 AW
The Lowepro Photo Sport 200 AW is part of their All Weather series and it’s a technical pack made for adventure photographers. It features a generous main compartment where you store your outdoor gear and separate camera compartment that’s accessed via a zipper on the side near the bottom of the pack.
Pack Features & Design
To reach your photo gear, you simply unsling your right arm out of the shoulder strap and swing the pack around so that you can reach the zipper. You don’t even have to unbuckle the waist strap, although you do have to release the sternum strap. Depending on how adept you are with slide release buckles, it only takes about 5-10 seconds to get your camera into your hands.
The main compartment is accessed via a traditional style top lid and draw string closure that lets you expand or cinch the lid down depending on how much gear you’re carrying. The Photo Sport 200 holds quite a bit of stuff—pretty much everything you’d need for a day in the mountains. It will easily fit a couple of fleece and puffy jackets, a water bottle, snacks, gloves, and a standard climbing rack and harness with the rope strapped under the lid. It also has a hydration pocket that holds a bladder up to 100 oz. in size, with an opening for the hose.
A feature on all of the AW Lowepro packs, including the Photo Sport, is the attached waterproof rain cover that tucks away at the bottom of the pack. Adventures don’t always have perfect weather, right? Considering that some packs make you pay extra for the rain covers, I think this is a nice addition.
Although it’s not advertised as such, the Photo Sport 200 will fit a 13" MacBook Pro right inside the main compartment; it slides perfectly behind the padded camera box. It’s not especially protected back there, and I wouldn’t carry it on a rugged outdoor adventure, but it works fine for general carrying or transport.
The top lid pocket is a little small, but it’s big enough for a light windbreaker, batteries, or small accessories. Outside of the pack, you’ll find ice axe loops, compressions straps, a buckle strap system on the bottom that will fit a sleeping pad, and a pocket on the non-camera flap side that will fit a compact tripod, bike pump, slim water bottle, trekking poles, baguette, etc. Finally, the pack has a “shove-it” flap on the back where you can stash a jacket, extra shirt, the blade of a small backcountry ski shovel, or a collapsible softbox that folds flat. For instance, the LumiQuest Softbox III fits perfectly back there.
The bottom camera compartment is sized to fit a DSLR or mirrorless camera with lens, and one or two extra lenses or flashes. It won’t really fit a battery grip DSLR, though, and it won’t fit a long tele-zoom attached to the camera either, but the secondary pocket will hold a longer lens like a Nikon 70-200mm f/4G ED VR lens with hood, the Fujifilm XF 55-200mm lens with hood, or a standard flash unit. You can also stash a second small lens like a 50mm or a compact zoom underneath the divider that supports your camera.
The Photo Sport 200 is indeed limited on how much camera gear it holds, but it’s not designed to hold everything you own. It’s made for light and fast adventures, and it does that extremely well. I’ve climbed, skied, biked, and hiked all day with this pack many times and I find it to be extremely comfortable and versatile. If you want to carry more gear, there’s plenty of room to store a couple extra lenses and flashes inside the main compartment along with the rest of your gear.
I’ve carried up to four extra flashes, a long tele-zoom lens, and even a battery-powered strobe inside the main bag, and strapped a large softbox bag on the side, and that’s in addition to the gear that’s in the regular camera compartment on the side. Access to the other gear obviously isn’t as fast, but when I’m using this pack to carry that much gear, it’s more about transport than accessibility.
The Lowepro Photo Sport 200 AW is by far my favorite all-around adventure camera pack. It’s made of lightweight ripstop nylon, it’s relatively streamlined, has lots of technical features, fits well on your back, carries great, and could work for a wide variety of highly active outdoor activities. At $150 it’s a great value, and if you like to go into the backcountry with a moderate amount of gear, this would be a great choice. However, if you like to carry two bodies, four or five lenses/flashes, and a larger tripod, this might not be big enough.
f-stop’s main focus is designing highly technical packs for hardcore adventure photographers. Their high-end Mountain Series packs use a modular system that includes a separate padded ICU (Internal Camera Unit) compartment that fits inside the main pack bag. Essentially, you choose a pack style and the ICU size that fits your assortment of gear.
The 25L Kenti is a little different. It’s part of their Mountain Series, but instead of using an ICU, it’s a smaller, self-contained pack that’s built with quick, side access panels. It’s less expensive and a little more versatile than some of their other packs, which I feel makes it attractive to a wider pool of photographers.
Pack Features & Design
The main feature of the Kenti is its double side access into the bottom camera compartment. Also, the padded camera compartment is a little bigger, so you can fit quite a bit more gear inside. You can either put gear on both sides, or if you want to go light, you can just put it on whatever side is more comfortable for you. Left side usually works better, since cameras are “right handed,” but you could do it the other way if you prefer.
The camera compartment is big enough to fit not one, but up to two pro bodies with long lenses attached, one in each side, as well as other lenses and flashes. The carrying capacity of this pack is pretty impressive and well thought out. Depending on the specifics of your equipment, you can reconfigure the dividers, or take them out entirely.
The upper compartment is built with a unique design. Instead of a zipper or top lid, it closes down with a rolltop buckle closure, similar to a dry bag. This gives you added weather resistance against the elements. It’s not a huge compartment, but certainly big enough for a light jacket, snacks, and a water bottle. If you had a really bulky jacket or a large amount of gear, you might have a hard time being able to roll down and buckle the top closure. You could always stuff a light wind layer or a few energy bars into the camera area, though. As I said, it’s big enough for most things, though I do wish it were just a little bigger.
Inside the main compartment there’s a laptop sleeve that fits a 13" MacBook Pro. On the outside front of the pack there’s a generous zipper compartment that has lots of organizational pockets and sleeves for pens, notebooks, batteries, memory cards, hard drives, and other flat things. You can’t fit anything bulky in here. In fact, I don’t think these pockets are very useful if you’re using it for outdoor and adventure use, but they do add to the Kenti’s versatility for travel and casual use around town.
Just above those compartments you’ll find a small but extremely handy little soft lined pocket that’s perfect for stashing a phone or sunglasses, extra batteries, a memory card case, or an energy bar—anything you want to access quickly. This pocket is extremely useful and I use it all the time.
On the back panel, there’s a zipper access compartment designed for a hydration bladder. It’s even got a slot for the hose and a drain hole at the bottom in case your bladder leaks. However, the sleeve isn’t very deep. It would be a tight fit with a full bladder, especially if you were carrying lots of camera gear. Too large a bladder and the back panel starts to bulge out. If you’re going to use a hydration system with this pack, it has to be small capacity or not very full. I hope they modify this in future versions of the pack.
One real strength of the Kenti is that it’s extremely well made with lots of highly durable materials and construction. The outside fabric is 350 denier ripstop nylon with a polyurethane coating, so it’s highly weather resistant. For even more protection, you can buy a separate rain cover that stashes in a pocket at the bottom of the pack. It has water resistant Hypalon zipper covers and YKK zipper pulls that are easy to grab when wearing gloves.
Another strength is that it has a great suspension system, a comfortable and high ventilation back, and a padded waist belt that effectively distributes the load, even when you’ve got the pack loaded up with a slew of heavy lenses. With lighter weight camera gear, you’ll feel like you’re hardly carrying anything at all.
The pack has compression straps and four side buckles that allow you to strap things on the side like a tripod, skis, trekking poles, etc. You can also buy separate GateKeeper mounting attachments that let you carry larger items like a snowboard. One thing I wish it had was a water bottle pocket on the outside.
Overall, the Kenti has a very nice, streamlined shape and a functional design. The side zipper camera compartment is very easy to access, and it holds a decent amount of hardware, though I wish that it had more storage space for other goodies in the top pocket.
Clearly designed to meet professional standards, the f-stop Kenti would make a great pack for both technical and casual day adventures. It also works extremely well for travel because it’s low profile, unobtrusive, form fitting, weather resistant, and quite rugged, plus it holds a variety of gear. At $195 the Kenti offers great value for a wide range of photographers. It’s become my default hiking photo pack when I want to carry more than just one or two extra lenses, and I also use it when I’m teaching outdoor photo workshops.
MindShift Gear rotation180° Panorama
MindShift Gear is a relative newcomer to the scene. Founded by the creators of Think Tank Photo, they’ve come up with an innovative design that allows ultra quick access to your camera gear. Instead of a side access compartment, the rotation180° Panorama features a unique rotating waist pack.
Pack Features & Design
Built into the pack and tucked underneath the main compartment, the separate camera waist pack has a special clip that quickly releases so that you can slide the whole thing around to your front, where you can zip it open and easily reach your camera gear.
I’ll be honest; I was highly skeptical that this would work as advertised. It seemed a little over-engineered, but after trying it out, I can tell you that the system works great. That special magic clip has a magnet that lets you release and fasten it again with one hand, even when you’re not looking. It only takes a few seconds to flip it around and get your camera into your hands.
The advantage of the waist pack is that you can see all of your equipment. You don’t have to twist your body around and reach sideways to pull each item out of the pack; it’s all right there in front of you. The waist bag doesn’t carry a ton of gear, but it will fit a DSLR with up to a 28-70mm lens attached, plus a couple of other smaller lenses, or a selection of mirrorless gear. The camera pouch also has a flap that will fit an iPad or other small tablet. The waist pack can even be worn by itself. Remove it from the rest of the pack and you’ve got an ultra lightweight hiking camera bag setup.
MindShift Gear does offer a second optional camera pouch that you can fit into the main compartment. This would be useful if you wanted to carry more photo gear than would fit in the lower rotating camera pouch, though this would obviously limit the amount of other outdoor gear you could carry in the main part of the pack. Another option would be to add additional lens cases to the waist belt.
The upper main compartment is generous in size, and it easily holds enough food, clothing, and gear for an all day outing. There’s also a small organizer pocket inside that fits things like memory cards or spare batteries. In addition, the zipper flap pocket on the top of the pack holds a small jacket and a handful of energy bars or other camera accessories.
On the side of the rotation180° Panorama, you’ll find a large hydration zipper pocket, which holds up to a 3L bladder, and it even has a slot for the hose. On the back of the pack you’ll find two tuck-away Velcro flaps (one at top and one at the bottom) that hide a dedicated tripod attachment system. You could probably use them to hold a pair of trekking poles. There’s also a single ice axe loop and corresponding attachment cord on the back of the pack.
Overall, the MindShift Gear rotation180° Panorama is a pretty fun little pack. It has a relatively clean design and it doesn’t try to be too much. It’s built for the outdoors, not so much as a travel pack, so it doesn’t have lots of extra pockets and organizers or a laptop sleeve.
As I said, I was pleasantly surprised by the rotation180° Panorama. At $200 it’s right in line with the competition. It doesn’t weigh very much, it has a comfortable suspension system, and it looks like it would hold up well under many years of use. The fabric is coated ripstop nylon that’s fairly water resistant, but they do offer an optional rain cover for extreme wet weather.
You could easily wear this pack all day long while doing nature photography or outdoor activities. You could even backcountry ski with it—a shovel blade would fit in the main top compartment and the handle would go in either the ice axe loop or the zipper access hydration pocket. Biking? Absolutely. Road trips? Why not? Traipsing around in the wild for hours on end? Definitely! The MindShift Gear slogan is “Engage with Nature.” In my mind, the rotation180° Panorama indeed has that vibe.
Manfrotto Pro Light 3N1-35
Manfrotto recently expanded their pack line by merging with photo pack maker Kata. Kata was one of the first companies to offer an expanded line of convertible sling packs that offer quick access, and now their packs are branded with the Manfrotto label.
The new Pro Light series is designed for photographers on the move. They feature lightweight materials and maximum padding and internal protection for your camera gear. While not specifically targeted towards the adventure photography market, they do come with accessory rain covers that will keep your gear dry in a downpour.
Pack Features & Design
The convertible nature of the 3N1-35 allows it to be worn as a right side sling, left side sling, or a traditional backpack either with a standard shoulder strap configuration or with the straps worn across your body in an X pattern. You can configure the zippers so that they match the way you wear the pack, which allows quick left- or right-hand access into the camera compartment when you sling the pack around to your side. Also, if you set up the pack as a sling, you can tuck the unused shoulder strap away so that it doesn’t flop around. Same goes for the waist belt.
As with the other models featured in this article, you never have to completely remove the pack in order to reach inside and grab your gear. However, if you are in a situation where you can put the bag down, you can pull both zippers in opposite directions and open up the entire back of the pack for easy access to all of your gear.
The upper compartment isn’t especially big (it’s about the same size as the one on the MindShift Gear bag), but it’s certainly big enough for a water bottle, some snacks, and a jacket or fleece. Inside the zipper access top lid you’ll find an array of pockets for things like notebooks, pens, memory cards, and portable hard drives. There are also two small upper side compartments on the outside of the pack that are big enough to fit small accessories like card readers, cable releases, PocketWizards, filters, spare batteries, or a wallet and keys.
The pack has a dedicated computer sleeve behind the shoulder straps that will fit a 15" laptop, and there are two pockets on the back of the pack sized to fit even more goodies. (They’re big enough for things like a 5×7″ notebook, hard drives, or coiled flash cables.) Finally, the pack comes with a removable tripod pocket attachment that buckles to the bottom that allows you to carry up to a medium sized unit strapped right on the back. Convenient, since Manfrotto also makes tripods.
I realize that from my description, it’s hard to imagine exactly how much stuff will fit in this pack. The best way to describe is to just have you watch this very short product video.
One of the main features that Manfrotto touts with their Pro Light series is that they have thick, triple layer padded camera insert dividers. They’re designed to offer a high degree of shock absorbing protection so that if your pack gets knocked around or dropped, your gear stays safe. Like most packs, the dividers can be configured in just about any way you like, or you can remove them entirely, unzip the top compartment, and just have one big space. Upon inspection, the padding definitely seems more robust than what you find on some other packs.
In use, the 3N1-35 carries well. The shoulder and waist straps have a high degree of padding (it lacks a chest strap), and the basic design of flipping the pack around and accessing your gear from the side works as intended. It can sometimes take a little longer to finagle with the zippers, but as is shown in the demo video, you can simply grab the edge of the flap and yank the whole thing open. Once you get used to how they work, the Pro Light packs do offer pretty fast access.
What I like about the 3N1-35 is that it holds a lot of gear. It fits a large battery grip DSLR with a pro size tele-zoom lens attached, five or six other lenses or flashes, a laptop, plus all the personal gear and accessories that fit in the side and upper pockets and top compartment. It lends itself very well to organizing all of your gear, which means you’ll be able to find things quickly.
Overall, it’s a little bigger and boxier in shape than the other packs, although Manfrotto does offer a smaller 3N1-25 model, as well as a number of other models in their series for photographers who want to go a little lighter and faster. Also, I find the zipper on the top compartment to be a little small. Considering that it will see lots of use, I’d like a larger gauge zipper here. The zipper pulls are also pretty wimpy, but those are easy enough to replace.
Compared to something like the Kenti, the 3N1-35 is a little bulky. It doesn’t compress at all if you’re carrying less stuff; it’s pretty much a fixed size. It’s not setup for a hydration system, but then again, most camera bags aren’t. I’m just a bit spoiled by some of the new designs. Think of this one as a traditional camera pack that offers the added benefit of fast, side flap access to your gear and lots of extra pockets.
Probably the biggest strongpoint of this pack is the increased level of padding and protection that it offers for your gear. Manfrotto bills this pack as great for travel and location, and I would agree with this assessment. It would work great for location and assignment shooting, and it would do well as a pack for landscape and general outdoor photographers. I don’t think it would work well as a technical adventure pack, but again, that’s not how it’s advertised. Hiking, sure. Tramping around or exploring an urban environment, yes. Climbing or backcountry skiing, not so much. I’ll go with “serious casual.”
With a price of $265, the Manfrotto Pro Light 3N1-35 seems to be right in line with most other packs that hold the same amount of gear.
Dan Bailey is a professional Alaska-based photographer. He’s been shooting for over twenty years and has had photos published by a wide variety of editorial and commercial clients. Please visit his blog and follow him on Facebook.