A camera backpack solution for photo gear… and everything else

CAMERA backpack, or camera BACKPACK?

I don’t know how many camera backpacks I have tried out in stores and looked at on web sites trying to find a solution to carry a modest DSLR camera setup along with other camera accessories, maybe a laptop or iPad, snacks, sunscreen, water bottles, a jacket, a few travel necessities, and so on. The problem is that when I go on a hike or an outing where I plan to take photos halfway seriously, having a comfortable way to carry the “other stuff” is just as important as carrying the camera gear.  In any case, I only want to carry one bag and it cannot scream “Lots of Photo Equipment Inside!”

Camera backpacks all seem to be CAMERA BACKPACKS first and foremost… with sometimes a small afterthought for the other stuff.  Often they are bulky and heavy with dividers and support, not as comfortable or well balanced as a good backpack, and assume everything you’ll carry is photo related.  This becomes even more important when traveling since reducing carry-on size and weight becomes more important as flights are more and more filled to capacity and the use of small regional aircraft becomes more common.  All of these things argue for a soft, light, and not-too-big bag that fits in even a small overhead compartment space.

A Solution: Backpack plus Inserts

Finally I think I’ve found a very good solution and have been using it for about six months with great success.  I have everything I normally need always in one bag and depending on what I’m doing I might switch out a lens and throw in some snacks, a water bottle, sunscreen, a jacket.  The majority of my gear is always in the bag.  I can get ready in 2 minutes whether I’m going on a day-long hike or down the street.

There are two parts to the solution.  To be comfortable carrying up to 15-20 pounds fully loaded, I first need a high quality backpack.  It needs to be pretty large, sturdy, but as lightweight as possible.  It needs at least a large interior compartment and a good number of large exterior pockets.  Here it is: the Red Oxx C-Ruck rucksack.  I’ve actually had this for about 3 years now (and it still looks new).  What’s so good about the C-Ruck?

  • It is utterly indestructible
  • It has a huge interior compartment and a good-sized laptop sleeve
  • It has large exterior side pockets for quart-size water bottles, cleaning kits, small tripods or Gorilla Pods, flashlight, emergency TP…
  • It has a large front pocket for my card wallet, filter wallet, random camera accessories
  • It has loops and clasps at the bottom to hold a big jacket, a rolled-up pad and/or tent, a collapsible tripod, etc.
  • The shoulder straps are very comfortable
  • And it is lightweight, I mean really lightweight!

There is one big drawback: it does not have any padding except at the back to pad the laptop (and your back).  So the second part of the solution, which I just recently found, is a fully padded compartmentalized camera bag insert.  This one is padded on the sides and bottom and fits perfectly inside the C-Ruck’s main compartment: the Camaroo DSLR Insert – Compact III.  Flip the top cover out of the way (or cut it off) and it fits tightly in the bottom of the C-Ruck.  I can put my body with lens plus at least one other lens and/or flash in the insert and get at them quickly.  I used this combination to tote my camera body, a chunky wide-to-mid angle zoom lens, and a medium large 70-400mm zoom (along with a jacket, hat, snacks, water bottle, and all the camera accessories above) around Africa this summer, and it worked perfectly.

I also recommend getting a few small and medium Eagle Creek travel sacs of different colors to hold collections of small items in, and put those (color coded) in the smaller pockets of the C-Ruck.  For example, I put a card reader, camera battery charger, a USB cable, and tiny LED flashlight in a small Eagle Creek travel sac.  All flash-related items can fit in a medium sac (the flash, extra set of batteries, small gel kit, remote cord) and go in the main compartment or a side pocket.

If you need to carry more camera gear (like 3-4 lenses and a flash) then I would modify the approach a little bit.  Put your most often-used lens on the body.  Put all the other lenses and the flash unit in the insert.  Cover the insert with something soft (a jacket for example), and put the camera with lens on top of that (it all fits easily in the C-Ruck).  When you start shooting, you’ll have your body out anyway so will be able to get to the other lenses quickly.

These little cable locks from Red Oxx are also super useful.  They don’t prevent anyone with the time and strong motivation to open or steal your bag, but they will confuse almost anyone trying to grab something quickly, so they will more likely give up rather than figure out how to circumvent them.  Buy about 10 (they’re only $1 each) and use them to lock zipper pulls together, and one to attach your bag to something immobile if someone might want to take the whole bag.

If you need to carry multiple bodies, you’ll probably need a more camera-focused solution than this.

If you don’t need to carry quite as much, or you’re a smaller person, Red Oxx makes a smaller version of the backpack, the Mini-Ruck.  If you go this route, I presume you’ll need to also get a smaller version of the Camaroo insert.

Disclaimer: I get no benefit from recommending these products.  I am just very happy I finally found a good solution for me, and think this might help others since it took me so much effort to find.

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