Carrying 101

You bought it, now how do you carry it?

If selecting the right camera, lenses, and support system is troublesome enough for you, welcome to the world of "never satisfied." Yes, I'm about to delve into the topic that plagues all photographers: bags. I've been carrying cameras to assignments, into the backwoods, and on planes, trains, and in automobiles since in mid-1970's. You'd think that 30+ years of experience might have guided me to the ultimate, perfect solution. You'd be (mostly) wrong. 

Let's start off with some generalities. There are several conflicting requirements of all camera carrying systems:

  • Accessibility: How fast can you get to what you need?
  • Protection: How well does it protect your equipment from bumps, drops, water, and theft?
  • Comfort: How do you feel after a day of carrying your five to thirty pounds worth of gear?
  • Flexibility & Expandability: Can you strap your tripod in? Can you reconfigure the system for those times when you're carrying your monster lens versus when you aren't? If you suddenly get a vertical grip, is that going to cause problems with fitting the camera? Can you add to it to carry other things (jacket, water, survival gear, accessible accessories, etc.). 

Next, we have several different approaches to carrying systems:

  • Backpacks: typically lots of comfort, flexibility, and protection at the expense of accessibility.
  • Shoulder bags: accessibility, often at the expense of comfort and/or flexibility.
  • Vests and strap carrying systems: mostly an odd mix of "almost-but-not-quite" capabilities.
  • Travel cases (ala Pelican, lots of protection at the expense of almost everything else. 

Now let's back up a moment and consider what it is we're likely to be carrying:

  • Camera: often just one, but sometimes a backup body and perhaps a compact camera, as well.
    Primary goal: accessibility (don't want to miss a picture as we're moving about).
    Secondary goal: protection.
    Tertiary goal: comfort. Ouch! [Flexibility and Expandability doesn't usually come into play for the camera] 
  • Lenses: the camera is likely to have a lens on it all the time (because we want to be quick to shoot when we get the camera out), so here we're talking about additional lens options, which can range from one small lens (perhaps the 10.5mm DX) to a half dozen (perhaps including a mammoth telephoto exotic).
    Primary goal: protection.
    Secondary goal: accessibility.
    Tertiary goal: flexibility and expandability. [Some might say comfort has to come into play at some point, but the bottom line is having the right gear with you is more important than comfort] 
  • Accessories: flash, batteries, filters, cleaning tools, gray card, etc.
    Primary goal: accessibility.
    Secondary goal: flexibility. [Comfort doesn't come into play, as these things aren't generally heavy or even bulky; plus most are easily protected] 
  • Support system: you may use anything from a trekking pole to a full blown tripod with all the fun gadgets such as leveling bases and panorama attachments.
    Primary goal: accessibility. 
    Secondary goal: comfort. [I've dragged my tripod up and down cliffs, through dense brush and mud, you name it; protection isn't really an issue with a good tripod (though cleaning it later may be!)] 

Next, let's consider logistics:

  • Travel to a locale. Getting from Pennsylvania to one of my workshops I'm not doing any photography (and if I am, it's often with a small pocket digicam). Same is probably true for you, too: traveling to a photographic location you want to have your equipment protected and comfortable to carry, and you don't worry about accessibility.
  • Travel within a locale. Now that we're at our photographic location, suddenly protection takes a back seat to accessibility (comfort remains a high priority, though). 

I think you're starting to see the problem: we have conflicts all over the place that need balancing. Basically you can pick one of two strategies:

  • Compromise on convenience. Travel to and from locations has you using one type of carrying system, mostly centered on comfort and protection. Once you're at your location you may change carrying systems (or at least strip the transport system down) so that you can move more freely or have better access.
  • Compromise on simplicity. Whatever you choose has to work well as both a transport system and use system.

Just as with support systems, every serious photographer tends to go through a series of purchases, spending far more time, expense, and energy trying to get their carrying system "right" than they do at almost any other aspect of their craft. Show me a pro photographer and I'll show you at least one closet of theirs that is full of bags tried and abandoned. Heck, I've got a giant box of just dividers, pouches, and cushions.

Let's see if I can bring at least a little sanity to the topic that drives most of us insane at some point. First, some of my own personal guidelines (yours may differ from mine):

  • Shooting has precedence. To take a picture you must have your camera in your hands, not locked inside a case inside of a case inside of a protective wrapper. I'll compromise almost every other aspect if it means I get the shot versus I don't.
  • Comfort is an important second goal. If you're not comfortable carrying your gear, you don't carry it. This inevitably comes brings us back to the first guideline: if you need X to get a shot and you're not carrying X because it just makes things too bulky or too heavy to carry around all day, you don't get the shot. 
  • Protection is a state of mind. If you know that your carrying system has little padding, just don't fling it about! If you know that your gear is a theft target, don't leave it sitting about unattended! Put another way: you can finesse your protection needs by being thoughtful and careful.
  • Complexity is your enemy. Laird used to sell a very good and clever rain cover for Nikon equipment (they may still do so), but ultimately I stopped using mine because once you unfolded the darned thing it took either a rocket scientist or an origami lesson to get it back to its optimal configuration. Sometimes brute force and simplicity wins out over ingenuity and complexity.

So what do I conclude from all of the above? Well, here's where my brain went:

  • Once I've arrived at a shooting locale, the camera stays out, and with the lens I'm most likely to use mounted on it. This led me to a series of experiments over the years, especially since often I was traveling in the backcountry with a regular backpack carrying mostly camping and survival gear. Ultimately, I settled on the following: I've modified all my main packs to take the clip-ins from a standard Op-Tech camera strap so that the camera hangs in front of me supported by the pack's shoulder straps, not a neck strap. How do I keep the camera from swinging? I use an old stretch device--I think it was made by Tamron and called the Slingshot, but there's no markings on it and I haven't seen one since--to hold the camera against my belly. Drawbacks: I sweat on the camera, and if I were to fall forward, I'd land on it. Positives: the camera is at the ready and carries comfortably. 
  • Backpacks work better than shoulder and other bags as the equipment list gets longer. It's simply the comfort thing. A well adjusted backpack that is fit to your body can carry a quarter of your body weight without slowing you down or making you uncomfortable. I routinely drag as much as 40 pounds over 12 miles without having sore shoulders, back, or neck. Shoulder bags are like golf bags used to be: they put asymmetrical force on your body, and ultimately that means aches and pains. If you're out for shorter times with only an extra lens and a flash, sure, it might work fine to use a good shoulder bag, but as those things get added to, beware the dreaded strap fatigue. The final alternative, belt bags, has the advantage of carrying the weight where your carrying capacity is highest (hips), but the disadvantage of being awkward for carrying long distances (a telephoto lens case on a hip belt system tends to either stick out too much or preclude leg movement). Another comment: a really good, accessible backpack that is well organized (by you) can net you anything you need in a fast frenzy of motion: pack off, unzipped, item grabbed, rezipped, pack on.
  • Everything needs a place, and that place has to be consistent. This is where things get a little more difficult to describe. Most of the time I use a very light vest and a backpack. The vest allows me to avoid the pack-off, pack-on problem for simple, small things. Filters are in lower left vest pocket. Batteries in lower right. Cards in upper right. Cleaning materials in upper left. Sometimes a small lens is in one of the big pockets, sometimes panorama plates, sometimes something silly and fun like the LensBaby, more often something useful such as a remote release or right-angle finder. This means that when I arrive at a shooting location, I have to take those things OUT of the backpack (or shoulder bag) and put them INTO the vest. And put them in the same place as last time so my aging brain cells don't combust when I'm looking for something. Likewise, lenses and flashes that stay in the bag need a fixed place and can't be buried under other things. Short story: I spend a few minutes optimizing my accessibility to items before traipsing off in search of shots.

Now on to some comments about individual bags and companies whose products I've tried, using the conclusions I just stated. Let's start with the real backpacks: 

  • LowePro MiniTrekker, NatureTrekker, PhotoTrekker, Pro Trekker, SuperTrekker, these are real backpack designs designed to carry complex and heavy systems comfortably. You'll see a lot of these in the field being used by pros, and for good reason: because they start with a real internal frame backpack design and pay attention to things like carrying position and hipbelt design. When you have to carry 30 pounds or more of camera gear the main LowePro line is more than up to the task. With the newer designs (AWII), pay careful attention to getting the length adjustment right so that the hipbelt is sitting on the correct position of your body, that the load is carried parallel to your back, and that the shoulder straps are correctly positioned. If you do this, these packs carry a lot of weight very comfortably. Over time, LowePro has improved many aspects of these packs, putting them at or near the top of the heap when it comes to looks and features, but that's not necessarily a good thing, actually. The NatureTrekker grew substantially in depth in the latest iteration, making it no longer fit in a regional jet overhead. The formerly easily dismounted supplemental pack is no longer optional and more difficult to remove. The new sizing mechanism is far easier to use, but slips to different adjustments more easily and can make for an unusual bit that juts out the top at some adjustments. The tripod carrier on my new NatureTrekker broke the very first time I used it (yes, the stitches came out). Bottom line: LowePro is the first place to look; but look carefully. 
  • Tamrac Expedition (5, 7, etc.): try loading the equivalent Tamrac and LowePro packs and carrying them for any distance and you'll see why I prefer the LowePro. All the things that make the LowePros good for carrying weight comfortably just aren't matched by the Tamracs. On the flip side, the Tamracs are very nicely finished, have some excellent details to them, and look great. But that's one of the things you learn when you buy dozens of bags and try to use them: looks and features don't mean a thing if they're not going to carry the load comfortably. The bottom line after trying an Expedition for two long trips: I finished each day sore and grumpy. I simply took all the stuff in the Expedition 7 and put it in a LowePro NatureTrekker AWII for the next trip, and the difference was enough to be instantly noticeable. I sold the Tamrac. Bottom line: LowePro is better. 
  • Mountainsmith: backpack maker Mountainsmith is known for lightweight packs that carry weight well. Their first attempts at camera backpacks were interesting. They fit and carry weight well, but they're still a bit of a mess when it comes to the camera organization (the strap-in padding system on my Paragon is hugely inflexible and doesn't work for some of my camera bodies). The latest models are a small step forward, but note that their weight has gone up substantially, and they're no longer much lighter than the equivalent LowePro, which is a drag. Bottom line: they need some photographer input and need to return to their light-weight orientation. 
  • Crumpler: if you can figure out how to navigate their Web site and can stand the pretentious names (e.g. Whickey and Cox), Crumpler's backpacks are worth a look. Most are designed to carry a laptop as well as a decent amount of camera equipment. Very well made, they carry adequately and have some unusual features that make them stand out for some uses. For example, they open from the strap side (as opposed to the side facing out when you carry them). This means that in areas where you're concerned about someone doing a quick unzip and stealing what they find inside, you don't have to worry at all—there's no way for a bystander to get to your camera equipment without you first taking off the pack. Well, okay, they could take a knife to it, but if that's the problem you're facing, not much is going to stop the thief. However, the downsides are large for a seriously working photographer. The tight shape makes the outer pockets totally unusable (yes, totally). The interior isn't "square," so you can't fit larger lenses towards the outside, especially face down. On my sample pack, the whole camera section is protected from the computer section by an additional zip open mesh, which slows things down even more while working. The packs themselves aren't very adjustable and only carry weight decently, not great. Bottom line: stylish and clever, but not up to the pro needs. 
  • Moose Petersen: Moose started making packs of his own unique design a couple years back. Since I fly out of an airport on regional jets, his MP-3 pack looked perfect in size for what I needed. As he warns, these aren't fully padded packs—they have little or no padding in several areas in order to cut down on size and weight. Moreover, the multi-compartment design is also different than you find in other photo backpacks; some will like that (I do), some won't (you need to be a bit anal and organized to appreciate it, I think). The quality and detailing of the packs are quite good, and they have an enormous stowage area compared to other packs of the same outer dimensions (removing all that extra padding has a way of doing that). For example, on a recent trip I got two D2x bodies, 10-20mm, 105mm, 18-200mm, 70-200mm, and the 200-400mm (plus a lot of filters and other miscellany) into the rather smallish MP-3 (and it really does fit in a RJ overhead). I really, really wanted to like the MP-3, but in the end three flaws made me abandon it: (1) it doesn't carry weight well at all; the shoulder straps don't fit me well, as you don't get a lot of adjustment and they come off the pack and around the body awkwardly to a point that's too high at the base of the pack; meanwhile the optional hip belt doesn't get weight transfer, so is of little use. Note how much gear I got into the pack—I suffered serious shoulder fatigue carrying it. (2) it doesn't make a great "working" pack, as getting at the equipment in some of the spaces is a bit restrictive (especially in the two smaller compartments, which have an awkward non-removable flap on one side); and (3) the optional computer carrying case under the best of circumstances will sag off the back of the pack as the buckle-in method used to mount the case simply has too much slack; the pack carries poorly with weight, and having even more weight fall away and down from the bag makes a bad situation worse. I can certainly recommend the Moose bags for out-of-car work and short hikes (especially if not loaded to the gills), but as far as doorstep-to-deep-backcountry solutions, they don't work for me. Bottom line: usable as a small work-from-car-and-short-hike pack, but not for the long haul. 
  • ThinkTank Airport series: They make several now and are several generations down the line (after some of us complained about the original Airport Addicted being WAY too big for practical use on anything other than hub-to-hub plane flights (e.g. big planes with big overheads). The smallest, the Airport Antidote, became my working bag of choice for some time. First, the ThinkTank stuff is very well designed and impeccably made. The attention to detail is appreciated, and the feature list is extensive. But it really comes down to two things for me: can it fit in that RJ overhead and does it carry well deep into the backcountry? A third thing—does it work well while shooting?—also enters the picture, but isn't as important to me as the first two. The AA hits the bill on all three, though. It not only fits into an RJ's overhead, it has a better laptop solution than I've seen on any other photo backpack to date (hint: flexible material expands to hold the laptop case). I don't know how that material will hold up over time, but my initial impression is that this is a better solution than a clip-on bag or a dedicated, non-flexible pocket [it's held up well on over 100,000 air miles so far]. And it's just like a LowePro to work out of: one big zip and you're accessing everything. But the best news is that it carries well. I currently have two D7000's, 10-20mm, 17-55mm, 105mm, 70-200mm, SB-800, and a big selection of filters and accessories crammed into mine. The whole thing weighs in at 21 pounds and it carries as well as any pack I've tried to date. The shoulder straps are correctly cut, the hip belt actually gets weight transfer if you adjust everything properly, and the pack stays locked to your back correctly (though a little sweatily). You've got plenty of attachment loops (one of which you'll probably use for the supplied tripod carrier). The only "carrying issue" to me is the sternum strap. The way it hooks to the shoulder straps is unique and difficult to adjust (at least it was on my samples). The short length of the pack also means that for many, the sternum strap becomes a neck strap if the hip belt is positioned correctly. More recently, I'm trying the Airport Acceleration for when I need a long, exotic telephoto with me. It seems to work as well as the Antidote, though I prefer the smaller Antidote size when possible. Bottom line: LowePro has a serious competitor. I switched. You might, too. (Note: the 200-400mm barely fits in the Antidote, but it doesn't leave much room for anything else; if you want to carry that lens, you really should switch up to the Acceleration model.) 

Lately a breed of hybrid backpacks have appeared. For the most part, they're like a modest waist bag with a small daypack attached to the top. 

  • LowePro Rover series: a combination camera waist bag (bottom) and daypack (top). Works best for minimal camera equipment carriers (typically no more than two extra lenses and a flash). In Patagonia I used one with a D200, several lenses, a flash, and my typical accessories. Emergency clothing, food, water, etc., went into the top area, while my tripod strapped on outside. Overall, not quite as comfortable with a lot of weight in them as the main LowePro packs, but if you can keep the weight under 20 pounds you'll probably find them both comfortable and convenient. Bottom line: a nice alternative for a long day hike with a modest amount of photo gear.
  • ThinkTank Rotation 360: I really wanted to like this. The origin of the split-pack idea came from Galen's prototype system that was briefly made in the early 90's, then imitated more poorly by the LowePro Orion later in the decade. The disadvantage of Galen's design was that it was difficult for some to rehook the waist bag back to the pack without taking it off your back (I'm not sure I 100% disagree with that--I had no such problem with mine--the difference is that most imitators tried to place the clip-ins centered on the weight carrying area, not slightly forward as Galen did). The Rotation 360 solves that problem well with a quite clever catch-and-release system. But the waist bag itself is a bit small, and the remaining pack area is also small. There's no easy way to get a 70-200mm into either section without compromising the remaining carrying capacity, for instance, so you end up putting an accessory case on the side of the pack (and then strapping something equally heavy, say a water bottle, on the other to balance things). The design is also a bit fussy and overdone. I can understand the rain cover having a zippered pocket, but the tripod carrying strap? Overall it comes close, and I'm sure Galen would have given it a try, but I think that the current iteration misses for most shooters. Bottom line: take a look if you like the idea, but make sure that you can fit what you need into the places you want them to be. 

In straight hipbelt (waist bag) systems, there really are only three to consider, IMHO: ThinkTank, Kinesis, and Kata. The ThinkTank and Kinesis were designed by and targeted at working photojournalists and sports photographers. Both have an amazing number of options and are quite flexible, within some limits. The primary issue with hip systems is that, for most of us, if you put too much weight on the hips, the belts tend to slide off (or you have to cinch them so tight you feel like you're being lassoed at a rodeo). That can be remedied by using a chest/shoulder strap arrangement to steady the position of the belt (hey, suspenders are hip again). A secondary issue is probably more important to most: you probably just got wider. You don't really want to be carrying anything large on the front of the belt systems, as that restricts leg movement, so your 70-200mm is going to be hanging off the side of the belt (if you put it on the back, then you defeat the convenience of using a belt system and should just go to a backpack). Another big pouch on the other side of the belt (you do want the belt to relatively balanced, right?) and you're now a good foot wider than you used to be. Surprisingly, that little bit of additional width can be quite limiting. For me, for example, suddenly my access to slot canyons requires moving sideways. But even simple things like narrow trails with close-in tree branches start to become a pain. The final issue with belt systems is that there is a finite limit to what you can carry, and that limit may be under what you want. If all you usually carry is an extra wide angle zoom, a 70-200mm, a flash, and a handful of filters, a belt system probably has enough capacity and you may find it more convenient to work from than a pack. But if you're a five-lens type of shooter, carry extension tubes, lots of filters, multiple flashes, or shoot mostly from a tripod, the belt system isn't going to carry all of that for you.

  • Kinesis: the joy of the Kinesis design is the manner in which their accessories attach to the belt. You get almost total flexibility in putting any of their bags, pouches, and goodies anywhere on the belt you want, and they stay put no matter how much they get bumped or banged. On the other hand, it'll take you awhile to get those things hung on the belt, as the system isn't exactly snap-and-go. Kinesis probably has more options to go on the belt than any other system I know of, and their cases and small bags are all pretty much bomb proof (though not rainproof--rain covers are extra options). The Kinesis belt also can be part of their backpack system. For a year, I used that combo pretty much full time (backpack to travel, belt system to shoot), but the backpack connection was fragile and broke on my Kinesis pack (the design now appears to have been changed, but I haven't tested it). The drawback to the system is that it tends to be expensive as you get your choices fully optioned out (most of the reasonable combos will be significantly over US$200). And figuring out the options will seem like it takes a PhD. My suggestion is to look carefully at their Suggested Systems for a starting point.
  • ThinkTank: I like the ThinkTank connection system less than the one Kinesis uses, but I like the overall system itself better (rain ready, faster to reconfigure, the "racing harness" really does steady the belt, etc.). Again, these can get expensive (the suggested Pro Modulus 12-piece belt kit is US$295). Overall, the quality of the product is high, though, and these systems are used day-in, day-out by a lot of photojournalists and sports photographers. Also, if you're not into the configure-it-yourself belt system and just want a solid belt bag, the ThinkTank Speed Demon, Speed Freak, or Speed Racer should be looked at. For a basic one camera, wide angle zoom, telephoto zoom, flash, and filters carrying system, the Speed Racer is my usual choice. The thing I like about it is that it handles the 70-200mm just fine, but doesn't add a lot of out-from-body depth, allowing me to maneuver in tight spots. Again, though, if you end up on the Think Tank page trying to pick something, you'll be there for awhile (though you only need a Master's degree here, not a PhD like on the Kinesis site).
  • Kata: if what you're looking for is a basic, small waist bag, the Kata 92 wins the prize. Simple, inexpensive (compared to the others), comfortable, and does the job. It's the waist bag I use most often, actually, though usually only when I'm carrying a body, two lenses, and filters. 

I'm not going to cover shoulder bags, as I generally don't use them. Beyond that, there's literally hundreds of options, so I couldn't possibly do them justice. I do like the Crumpler shoulder bags, but as I noted, I rarely use shoulder bags as they just don't carry weight well (your shoulders are not designed to carry weight, and having the weight torque at an angle across the body doesn't help things; have you ever seen a serious hiker using a shoulder bag? Well, there's a good reason they don't. It's the same reason why serious photographers eventually give up on them).

One other thing I should mentioned about carrying: there's one special situation that requires a specialized bag. Basically, if you're going to be on water, you need a bag that protects your equipment from catastrophic failure due to dunking. This happens more than you'd expect. If you go to the Galapagos, for instance—a favorite photographer locale—you'll be in and out of small row boats (called pangas) or Zodiacs four times a day or more. Sometimes wading to shore. In the Tetons one of the more popular hikes starts with a boat ride. Many backcountry trails cross streams, and some require serious fording. Photography around waterfalls often is much like being in a rain storm. Perhaps you want to canoe or kayak to a better location. In short, there are plenty of photographic opportunities that involve serious water exposure, and dunking a digital camera in water will be life-ending for your expensive equipment. 

The solution to not exposing your delicate camera equipment to a solution is using some form of dry bag. Regular kayakers and canoe-ers collect dry bags like we photographers collect lens and gadget bags. But a standard dry bag is just that, a bag. It isn't designed to keep camera equipment protected from bumps, drops, or rubbing against each other. You could put a camera bag inside a dry bag, but that's a little cumbersome, I think. Fortunately, LowePro has two answers: dry-bag type versions of their regular packs, called the DryZone; and dry-bag type versions of their Rover pack, called the DryZone Rover. These are perfect solutions for the Galapagos or similar situations since they also float when full of equipment, but they come with a penalty: access is compromised a bit by the stiffness and difficulty of undoing the main zipper (it, after all, has to be part of a water-impermeable barrier). LowePro supplies you a grease that you use to keep the zipper lubricated, which helps a bit, but just don't expect the instantaneous access you get with most photo backpacks. That's especially true since you absolutely need to close the zipper after getting what it is you need, otherwise you have little more protection than a regular pack in the same situation. Still, highly recommended if you need them--they're a near perfect solution for the serious on-water photographer. 

More recently, I've been using the light, simple, and inexpensive Aquapac dry bag backpack, with my own custom interior to carry the gear. It's easy enough to stuff this backpack into my checked luggage (it pretty much can be flattened), yet it's perfect for those Galapagos panga rides.

Okay, we've gotten this far, let's look at my current basic carrying system in a bit more depth. Here's a picture of the inside of my ThinkTank Airport Antidote:

Left column from back to front: filters, rain covers/cards, 10.5mm, cables, caps & lens pen

Center column from back to front: filters, 17-55mm, 105mm Micro-Nikkor, D2x body with 10-20mm Sigma

Right column from back to front: 70-200mm, two SB-800s, extra USB hard drives (or Epson P5000)

I usually get even more into the bag, as I put a "roof" over the 70-200mm and put additional equipment there. 

That's a lot of gear in there. But I've also got a tripod (usually the Gitzo 1325 with a BH-55), water, and a handful of emergency gear (raincoat) to carry, as well. That all gets strapped to the sides or stuffed into the pocket that holds the computer while in commute. Besides all that, I've set up my bag so that I can clip my camera into the shoulder straps (easily done on the ThinkTank as the shoulder straps have many attachment points, including metal rings). That way I can carry the camera out where its accessible while hiking. I initially tried clipping a small bag onto the waist belt, but didn't like that. I also tried using a many-pocket vest (you need somewhere to keep lots of small items that should be accessible at all times, like a LensPen, a filter or two, remote controls, extra cards, etc.). That works (try bringing your pack along while trying on different vests), but makes for a lot of sweating on hot days. I eventually found something else I really like, the LL Bean Half Target Vest. Basically a multipocket pouch that mounts around your waist that gives you access to several big pockets that can easily carry lots of small and light odds and ends you might want easy access to. It was originally intended to be a hunter's equivalent to the classic tool pouch, I guess. Whatever. It works. Unfortunately it doesn't seem as if they make it any more, so you'll have to check your local hunting supplier to see if you can find something similar. Cabela's makes something not quite as flexible, called the Upland 1/2 Vest; it doesn't have the gargantuan pocket the Bean version had, though. 

Well, if you made it this far, congratulations, you're almost through with this introductory course. In case you fell asleep during the lecture and need the Cliff Notes version:

  • Backpacks: consider LowePro and ThinkTank. Gura Gear also makes some good backpacks worth considering.
  • Hybrids: the LowePro Rover series works, the ThinkTank Rotation 360 is worth looking at but make sure it works for you.
  • Waist bags: get the Kata for the simple basics. Consider the ThinkTank and Kinesis if you need more.
  • Shoulder bags: give you shoulder a rest; avoid them. 

Yes, there is still more to carrying. I haven't talked about Pelican cases, getting lighting gear from the studio to a remote shoot, or a number of other subjects that would be applicable here. Those will have to wait for a future class, however. Class dismissed; see you next semester... 

As with many of my articles, this one elicited a large number of comments from readers. A couple of comments seemed interesting enough to summarize/excerpt here (all are edited here by me for clarity and brevity; my comments are in brackets), as they might be useful to those reading this article:

  • I have a Nature Trekker that stays home since I bought an Arcteryx Bora 65. The Bora has a zippered section in the bottom [typically used for sleeping bags in backpacking] where I put a LowePro Stealth Reporter. Tripod slides into the side water pocket and straps to the side. Extra camera equipment, clothing, water, etc., go in the top portion of the bag. Total weight is about 24 pounds and my shoulders are fine at the end of a day hike. [As the former editor of Backpacker magazine, I sometimes use a dedicated backpack in a similar fashion. The primary problems with doing so are protection and access. As this reader indicates, you usually have to put the camera equipment in a protected bag within the backpack, as the backpack itself has no padding to protect your gear. This destroys instant access, unfortunately. Moreover, the weight can add up, though it can usually be carried very comfortably as most true backpacks are much better designed for carrying and distributing weight than are camera bags. Note that the Bora 65 is over 6 pounds all by itself, and costs about US$350. This is not an option to explore lightly (pardon the pun).]
  • The LowePro LensTrekker 600 deserves special mention as it's the only bag I've found that'll let me hike with a 400mm f/2.8 attached to my camera. I can even fit the D2x on the 400mm with the TC-17E ready to shoot. Add a couple of external pouches for wide/small lenses and its close to perfect for big gun shooting (I had to add more straps for tripod support). [Think Tank has something similar, the Glass Taxi, though it won't hold quite that large a lens with the camera still attached. Hiking with really long and heavy lenses is still an area that the pack makers haven't mastered, though. All the options are a little bit marginal in some respect.]
  • More than one person tried to zero in on the stretch device I use to hold the camera in place. For the record, it is NOT the binocular type of crisscross strap, such as the Kuban Hitch, it's a single wrap-around-my-chest piece with a hole in it. But the power of the Web to the rescue: one person correctly identified it as the Op/tech Stabilizer Strap, and it appears these are still available from many sources for about US$18. (Note, you Brits need to spell it your way: Stabiliser.) 
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