Have you ever noticed how many people in Boulderor any mountain town, for that matterwear lumbar packs with their coffee mugs caribinered to them? As with the yo-yo and the hula hoop, somebody had to invent those packs. In this case, it was Mountainsmith, the Golden, Colorado, bag manufacturer with the golden zip pulls, and the year was 1982. Now they've kicked down the door on camera packs with a new line suited to everyone, from the sometimes hiker who wants to carry a point-and-shoot to the professional who's in and out of skis all day and constantly changing lenses.
Courtesy, Mountainsmith; available July 2005
I'm of two minds when it comes to carrying an SLR (single lens reflexi.e., most cameras with interchangeable lenses) in the field. The first option is to use your normal pack and carry a separate camera case. Mountainsmith's top-loading holster-style Beacon series is ideal. It's slim, simple, and comes in a range of sizes to accommodate cameras from your high school Pentax K1000 to a full-size pro SLR with a vertical grip and a hefty telephoto (roughly 200mm F/2.8 or 400mm F/5.6). Two minimalist pockets are sufficient to carry extra film, memory cards, batteries, and a light meter. The shoulder strap can be slung across your side for easy access and anchored there by your backpack's chest strap.
The second option is to dedicate your outing strictly to photography and carry extra clothing, food, and gear as space allows. For this, the Parallax (available in July) is king. Foam and polyethalyne sidewalls house a divided main compartment for bodies and lenses like any reinforced camera bag. You access this compartment through the critical main panel. You've heard of top-loading packs and zippered front-loading packs, but the key to any good camera pack is main-panel access between the two shoulder straps. While leaving the waist belt fastened, you slide your arms out of the straps and swing the pack around to your front. The fastened waist belt allows the pack to hinge forward so you can access it like a hotdog vendor does his tray. You'll never have to put your open pack down in the mud or snow. Behind the main compartment, two slim pockets hold notebook, pens, and a reinforced laptop sleeve. In the field, these are also a great place to stash extra clothes, candy bars, or even an avalanche shovel. On the outside, the folks at Mountainsmith have applied and adapted several features typical of climbing packs to their photography line. The first is a sleeve that unfurls from the base of the pack to cup your tripod. Both the sleeve and the flaps to fasten the top of the tripod are reinforced with the same rubberized material used to guard Mountainsmith's alpine packs from crampon punctures, so go ahead and strap some 20-pound steel Gitzo tripod legs to it if you fancy. Rounding out the package are side-carry ski straps, side mesh pockets, and rubberized top and side carry handles. And let's not forget the two daisy-chain loopsperfect for 'binering your coffee thermos. Beacon II Small, $39.95; Beacon II Medium, $45.95; Parallax, $169.95 (Available July 2005); www.mountainsmith.com