Shimoda Backpack Review: Adventure photographers rejoice, someone finally got it right
posted Thursday, November 30, 2017 at 4:00 PM EST
There has been an undeniable void of adventure backpacks that also happen to be good camera backpacks. It seems that to this point, you had to be ready to pick one or the other, never both. For as long as I have been neck deep in this industry, there have been multiple attempts, but always problems. The two closest bags, in my opinion, have been F-Stop Gear and Lowepro’s Whistler. With F-Stop, the company has devolved into a complete disaster and is pretty much never able to keep stock of product. They also tend to wear out. With Lowepro, the bag is amazing and well-built, but extremely heavy when empty which is not ideal for long hikes or climbing expeditions.
Shimoda, a new bag brand in partnership with Tenba, aims to fill that void. With some really intelligent design decisions and excellent craftsmanship combined with the bag-making history, proven facilities and excellent distribution chain of Tenba, I believe they actually can. In fact, the Shimoda bag is as close to perfect as I’ve seen from any manufacturer, and it’s clear that they took the task of appeasing adventure photographers seriously.
Firstly, this bag (in both its 40L and 60L iterations) is not for everyone. It’s not going to be a good bag for the average photographer, and generally speaking, unless you plan to “get out there” with your equipment, it’s going to feel overpriced and over-engineered.
But if you’ve been stressing about how to bring a few cameras, lenses and other associated equipment out with you on a 10 mile hike along with water, food and camping equipment, then this absolutely is right up your alley.
Shimoda announced three camera bags, but I’ve only had experience with two of them and only personally tested one of them. For this review, we’ll be specifically looking at the Explore 60, with some references to the Explore 40 and how it compares (I spent some time recently with David Schloss, editor over at Digital Photo Pro who had the Explore 40, so we shared notes).
Firstly, the Explore 60 is a very large bag. It’s 24 inches tall by 11.4 inches wide, but 11 inches deep and weighs 3.3 pounds when empty. I’m not entirely certain that the 24 inches tall actually includes the top portion of the bag, because it seems much bigger than that when you’re taking advantage of the space and packing things into it. Especially when compared to the Explore 40, which is 22.4 inches tall, I think the measurements are more based on the bag when empty. This is a good thing; it means that the bag is actually much more spacious and expandable than you might think, and the sheer volume of items you can fit into it at one time is extremely impressive.
My favorite feature has to be the shoulder straps, which are completely customizable to fit anyone's body. Not only can you loosen and tighten the shoulder straps, you can also change their height to fit your specific size. I’m not a tall person, so I lowered the point at which the shoulder strap hinges to the bag by two levels. This extra level of customization makes the bag fit even more comfortably across my back, and will make it fit just as well for any body type out there.
Additionally, it has a sturdy waist strap and chest strap that work in tandem to assure a snug, comfortable fit and even weight distribution. Combine all three of these straps with the metal interior frame (this is really important for any bag you plan to take out backpacking), and you have a bag that will never tug down on your back improperly and will always sit exactly where you want it, with its weight well distributed. If the bag is uncomfortable in any way, you can fix it.
On a recent trip to Arizona, I packed three DSLRs, a MacBook Pro and charger, three lenses, two tripods, an entire Cinetics Lynx rig including the slider, a portable battery pack, over-ear headphones, a Kindle, and a ton of accessories into the Explore 60 -- and it still had room for more! I later added a jacket, water bottle, gloves, and snacks and it still could have fit more. When it got hot, there was easily space for me to put my sweatshirt.
It can fit so much due to the modular nature of its design. The way the numerous pockets and hinges work, you can take advantage of just about every square inch of space in and around the bag.
I hung tripods off the sides and the slider fit into the rear compartment, held in with buckles. My jacket went underneath the top compartment and it clipped down on it to hold it in place. The water bottle fit snugly in the left harness compartment. Food went in the right zippered arm harness pocket and the top pocket. All my camera gear and the laptop fit into the central compartment. I still had room for a tent or sleeping pad on the bottom of the Explore 60, as it has a place to hang equipment from under the bag itself.
All the accessories fit nicely into an array of Shimoda accessory bags, which share much in common with Tenba’s line of cases. (I am actually pretty sure they’re based directly on these.) They’re great, have a nice divided interior design, and are one of my favorite smaller bags for keeping things like cables, tripod plates and extra batteries.
Overall, the Shimoda sports such a wildly adaptable design that lets you use the entire bag for just about anything you want. The only disadvantage to this kind of design is the propensity to overpack the bag and give your shoulders more to lug than you should. But that’s on you, not on Shimoda.
The interior of the Shimoda line is based on their interchangeable and modular “Core Units.” If you have followed adventure backpacks before, they’ll look extremely similar to the popular Internal Camera Units that fit into F-Stop bags. That’s probably because they’re essentially the same thing, designed by the same person.
That’s right, the guy who is responsible for most of the great backpacks from F-Stop designed the entire Shimoda series. Ian Millar left F-Stop right after the news broke of their horrendous business practices and the failure of their KitSentry project. He decided to design bags on his own, and eventually partnered with Tenba to create Shimoda.
The Core Units are very well designed, and in my opinion sturdier and with a greater potential lifespan in mind than the ICUs from F-Stop. The units themselves are made of a stiff material, as are the dividers. They actually do much on their own to hold the shape of the Shimoda bag, and I’m pretty sure they’re going to last a long time. The same cannot be said of my old F-Stop ICUs.
I personally rarely swap out the interior of my bags, and having multiple options for the bag is nice, but rarely used. What happens is I find a good layout that I like, and I never change it. However, the fact remains that I could change it, which makes me happy mentally. I like having options even if I never plan to use them.
But having the Core Units at all means that you and I could have the same backpack, but laid out completely differently for our own specific needs. For example, the Explore bags have a side zipper that allows you to quickly access the interior of the bag without taking it off. If you are using two of the smaller Core Units instead of the large one, you can have one face outwards towards that hole, letting you get to specific gear quickly. This kind of layout will appeal to a different kind of photographer than I am. I prefer to have everything lined up and accessible via the main compartment, but you might want to be able to quickly pull your camera out to capture an image of wildlife.
That’s the beauty of this design though. We both can get what we want without really compromising anything.
I feel like I’m starting to ramble, but there are so many ways to customize this bag that I don’t want to leave anything out. Nearly everything can be moved and tweaked to specifically fit any photographer’s needs in just about any environment. Need a place for a long-range walkie talkie? It has that. Want to store a water bladder? It has that, too. (The Explore 60 has a dedicated pouch while the 40 does not, but both support one.) Want to chest-mount your 100-400mm lens on your camera? You can move the side tripod bag to your chest and repurpose it. So yes, it has that. Need to mount skis or a snowboard? It has the proper buckles for that too.
I can keep going. This bag is so good at being absolutely anything to anyone in the adventure space. At no point does it say, “you can’t do that.” It always seems to ask, “what else can I do for you?”
There is only one place where I think Shimoda could have stopped trying to be something it’s not: You can take the Core Unit out and put it in an included little sling bag thing that is perhaps the most hideous sling available. It’s also not incredibly comfortable or supportive. Don’t do it.
The Shimoda isn’t cheap, but it’s also not a bag you’ll have to replace any time soon. The Kickstarter price is easily going to be your best bet, as the eventual retail price is considerably higher. The cheapest option that actually includes a backpack is $269, and that includes the 40L and 2 small core units. To get the 60L, the one I tested, you are going to have to pony up at least $370. This is, again, much discounted from what it will eventually sell for, but it’s no drop in the bucket either.
They’re expensive, but if you are out with your camera equipment and backpack frequently, it’s worth it. In fact, I can’t think of a better backpack out there that is so well-suited to this use case.
Highly customizable fit, with completely adaptable shoulder straps that work for all heights
Tons of total storage space via pockets, straps and compartments
Fits a 15 inch laptop (60L only; 40L will fit a 13 inch laptop)
Totally customizable interior thanks to the interchangeable Core Units
Water resistant exterior, meaning rain and snow are not a problem. Don’t swim with it.
Leather pull tabs feel great and are very sturdy
Padded design makes it comfortable to use
Extremely light when empty, meaning it’s only heavy if overfilled
A bunch of different hand holds and grips all around the bag make it easy to pick up from any angle.
Niche: not everyone will like this bag. It’s very specific.
Only two color options
The Shimoda backpack is so well designed, the only complaints I could come up with are that it is pricey because it’s quality, niche to a specific photographer, and only has two color options. It honestly gets everything else totally right. There isn’t really another adventure bag out there that seems to “get” photographers who also happen to be backpackers. It’s lightweight, rugged, insanely customizable, and it even looks pretty good!