Professional whitewater kayak photographer Darin McQuiod is tougher on camera equipment than anyone else I’ve met. The Dagger-sponsored kayaker built his career by boating into some of the most remote, terrifying rivers in the world with a camera in tow.
Last spring he ran the 86-foot Metlako Falls with two cameras in his kayak because was feeling the drop and didn't want to hike the gear out. (The cameras survived the drop, but broke later that year.)
I sent Darin six great small camera packs and asked him to run them through the ringer for two months. The goal—find the perfect lightweight adventure bag to carry an amateur or minimalist pro kit. Here's how they stacked up.
Think Tank Streetwalker ($170)
Best For: Professional photo sessions
Size: 15L external, 12.6L internal
This pack carries like a real backpack, just in miniature. "The Streetwalker is the friendliest for professional-level gear," says McQuoid. "This was my favorite pack for shooting with a tripod."
The removable waist belt and narrow width make it a dynamic travel pack that won't smack your fellow passengers in the head when you walk through the airplane aisle. And because the bag has see-through internal pockets and zips open completely, it’s easy to organize and access your gear. With its breathable back, the Streetwalker kept McQuoid comfortably cool on long hikes.
That said, the Streetwalker doesn’t carry well on a bike. If cycling is your main activity, look instead toward the Espionage or Panorama packs.
Dakine Mission Photo ($150)
Best For: Day hikes
The Dakine Mission Photo feels very much like a daypack thanks to its styling and removable camera-organizing pouch. "It's good for traveling incognito," says McQuiod. Flying under the radar is particularly important if you’re shooting in an area where a fancy camera might make you a target of theft.
The Mission Photo doesn’t have water bottle holders or space for a bladder—not ideal for long mountain bike rides. But in spite of this drawback, it's a well-equipped pack, especially considering the price. (It’s the least expensive bag on this list.) The Mission Photo has dedicated fleece-lined filter pockets and the tripod holder doubles as a snowboard carry, although McQuiod found it awkward to carry both at the same time.
Take note that, because the pack’s opening is smaller than the actual compartment, getting gear in and out can sometimes be a struggle. And if you’re shorter than 5’7”, this bag will likely be too big for you.
Timbuk2 Espionage ($199)
Best For: International travel
Size: 24L external, 15L internal
This is a really great travel bag that also happens to carry a camera, says McQuiod. While the Espionage doesn't look like a camera bag, it does come with smart camera-specific design features like an easy-open zipper with snaps to keep you from accidently losing gear.
The Espionage has a roll-top with a simple single-fold design. It also features a built-in bottle opener, removable waist belt and sternum strap, and a dedicated laptop compartment. "It's my favorite for international travel—if you're traveling light on camera gear," McQuiod said.
Crumpler Karachi Outpost ($215)
Best For: Leisure trips
The Karachi Outpost has an organic, natural look thanks to its twill outer fabric. It comes with a rigid camera compartment, which will protect cameras and other gear.
But that hard compartment makes the pack uncomfortable for strenuous outdoor pursuits. Combined with the lack of waist belt and its short straps, the Karachi Outpost carries more like a Pelican case than a backpack, according to McQuiod. He also had issues getting his gear in and out of the pack because the opening was smaller than the interior space.
Mindshift R180 Panorama ($200)
Best For: Safaris
The Mindshift R180 Panorama should be the bag of choice for true adventurers, says McQuiod. "It carries the best and the camera is quickly accessible."
The unique integrated beltpack lets you swivel the bag around your hips without removing it. You can load it with professional-level gear and still access all the equipment quickly. "It's great for people really into fast-moving photography,” says McQuiod. This pack is very comfortable and won’t restrict your movements when you’re out adventuring.
F-Stop Kenti ($249)
Best For: Long treks
The 25-liter F-Stop Kenti has some great camera-specific design features like the fleece dividers and padded extra-storage pocket. The bag has plenty of space to store bulky camera gear and you don’t have to remove the tripod to access the equipment. It also comes with a super comfy waist belt.
So what’s the Achilles heel of this well-featured camera pack? Access. The Kenti splits the main compartment in half. So if you change lenses frequently, you’ll have to go from side to side because the roll access on top of the bag is a bit cumbersome to use.