Packin' It

If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn't need to lug around a camera.
   Lewis Hine

Well-used Tamrac Expedition 5.

My well-used Tamrac Expedition 5.

Photo backpacks are a weird lot. Most are heavily padded to provide excellent protection for your camera gear. Most can be customized, some more than others, to accommodate your gear and the way you prefer to work. And because they don't provide the necessary support and adjustments, most are lousy backpacks. I base that claim on my own experience, that of a number of photographers I know, and many reports on various Web forums. Photo packs can't be made comfortable for the long haul (or even short ones, in many cases).

Well-used Tamrac Expedition 5.

Interior arrangement of my Tamrac Expedition 5.

Technical backpacks, that is, those with internal frames, suspension systems, and adjustments for every strap, pad, and belt, can, when properly set up, make carrying a heavy load long distances much more pleasant, or at least, less miserable. But they're poor camera bags because they open from the top and don't provide adequate access to and protection for your gear.

For years I've used a Tamrac Expedition 5 backpack, which I've been able to adjust as needed to accommodate changes in my photographic kit. Tamrac still makes something with that name; it's similar to my old pack. It's padding provides excellent protection for the gear. Internal dividers can be positioned more-or-less as desired. But the lack of suspension system, frame (internal or external), and hip belt mean the entire weight of the pack and the gear within hang from one's shoulders. I've found it increasingly uncomfortable as I've gotten older, and it's now considerably sub-optimal at my advanced age, which you won't find in this article. The pack affects my ability to take my gear where I want to go without suffering for it later. My Tamrac has been very durable and has served me well enough, but my shoulders now demand a lightening of the load, while my creative side refuses to leave any of my modest kit behind. It's time for a real backpack.

Who's To Say What's “Real?”

The state of photo backpacks is abysmal. As noted above, one can get technical backpacks, with internal frames and suspension systems designed to facilitate carrying a load in comfort, or one can buy a photo backpack and suffer the consequences. The major failing of technical packs is they aren't designed to carry camera gear. While most of these packs have internal frames and full suspension systems with hip belt, shoulder strap, and load-leveler adjustments, they are basically top-loading sacks meant to carry soft gear like clothing, sleeping pads and bags, etc. The “hard” items, cookware, camp stoves, trekking poles, even water bottles, attach to the outside of the pack. Hardly appropriate for expensive and (relatively) fragile camera bodies and lenses.

I researched several brands of backpacks, found one I liked and felt would do the job, and then set out to find appropriate padded “boxes” or other means to create internal compartments. These are available, and would surely work if one doesn't mind dealing with the top-loading nature of the backpack. I suspect I'd find myself unloading half the pack to get to the desired box, leaving gear scattered around on the ground. This surely would limit my typical method of moving around a fair amount when photographing a scene; following wildlife would be a ridiculous experience. What's needed is a front-loading technical pack with internal compartments suitable for (in my case) 35mm bodies, lenses, and accessories.

Renaissance Photo Products P3

Several years ago I read about Bruce Laughton and his custom photo backpacks. These were front-loading technical packs made specifically for medium and large format gear, stuff that's much larger and heavier than my 35mm DSLR kit. Intriguing, but I saw no way to make it work for my gear. Late in 2013 I came across an article on Luminous Landscape (Lula), in which Mark Dubovoy describes the latest backpack from Mr. Laughton, the RPT P3. This is an excellent review, providing photos, details about the P3, the problems it solves, and a concluding list of pros and cons; there's no need to repeat any of that here.

RPT P3 kit

The RPT P3 “kit” includes all of this. The foreground materials are used inside the enclosure at left. The enclosure is then attached inside the backpack.

I re-read Mr. Dubovoy's review a couple of times, e-mailed Mr. Laughton a few questions (very quick and helpful responses from him), made the necessary physical measurements, and placed my order, taking advantage of the free shipping offer. My P3 arrived a few days later. I also ordered a side-pouch, which is very large; I'll suspect I'll never use it.

What makes the P3 work for smaller gear (35mm and MF) is the “coffin-like” insert, the SLR enclosure. This gives the backpack's thin shell some structure, and the enclosure's interior can be organized, padded, and divided in any way imaginable. Included with the enclosure is a template on which you can place your gear and determine the best layout of dividers and supports for the pack's interior. I spent parts of three days working on this before I cut my first piece of partitioning material. It's worth taking the time to get it right, but there's enough material included to do the job a couple of times, allowing one to test various ideas.

The P3 is quite large, while my kit is not. There's a lot of empty space inside my pack, which provides room for food, a jacket, and more, a luxury my old pack didn't offer. I do have plans to add a lens to my kit, but even that will leave plenty of room for later equipment purchases.

Once you've laid out and assembled the interior to handle your kit, your next task is adjusting the hip belt, shoulder straps, and load leveler straps. If you've never used a technical backpack, this can present some challenges. I had little idea how to optimize the fit and weight transfer from shoulders to hips. In fact, my first outing with the P3 was disappointing. But the Web is our friend; I found plenty of help there. A transcripted video from REI gave me a good start. My most recent hike with my gear in the P3, a walk of about seven miles (11.3 km) in northwest Montana's Jewel Basin, couldn't have been more comfortable. A night-and-day difference between the P3 and my old pack.

Some Room for Improvement

As Mr. Dubovoy points out in his article, nothing's perfect. While the P3 is very nice and does exactly what it's supposed to do, I've a few suggestions for the P4:

My interior arrangement in the RPT P3.

My interior arrangement in the RPT P3.

If you're looking for a large, easily customized, fully adjustable technical backpack for your gear, have a look at the RPT P3. I've had mine only a short time, but so far I'm loving it.

July, 2014

All products and brand names mentioned are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective owners.
I have no connection with Renaissance Photo Products, nor with Bruce Laughton, except as a satisfied customer.