How to carry a camera in the woods

Lowepro front view

First a confession: I hate – literally hate – having to haul around my waist a funny pack. Heck, I hate the name funny pack itself! But, objectively, it is one of the few way to carry gear in the woods – or around a city, for what matters – that at the same time doesn’t break your back and don’t require you having to stop every three seconds to put the bag on the ground, cursing because inevitably the ground will be damp or littered with animal poop, to access your camera and lenses.

But, did I told you? I HATE funny packs / bum bags.

To avoid carrying one I tried practically every alternative solution, from the commercial available to the DIY one:

– vests: pretty comfortable, especially if you avoid the photographic one and go for the cheap fishing type; but they scream “PHOTOGRAPHER, EXPENSIVE GEAR” to every thief, that in the woods is not a big problem, but in a city tour may well be. More, they are hot in the summer and uncomfortable in the winter, when you need to zip / unzip your jacket a thousand time a day.

– shoulder bags: THE photographer bag. I avoid this one like the plague. First they share the “look: photographer, expensive gear!!!” problem of the vests. Then they are too bulky, too heavy and the padding wastes a lot of space. If you are even a tiny bit careful that much padding is not needed. To avoid both of this problems you can make your padding insert out of Reflectix (the stuff of which car sunscreens are made), and put it in a normal, not photographic bag. Reflectix, other than dirty dirty cheap, it happens to be also a thermal isolating material, and that are good news for when (notice: “when”, not “if”) you will left your bag in the trunk or in the sun. In both cases, commercial or DIY bags: forget about using that kind of bag in the woods, unless you walk just a hundred of meter from your car: your shoulders and back will thank you.

– sling bags: probably fine if you carry a mirrorless o some kind of light camera during a city tour, but in the woods you almost certainly will have same kind of technical backpack, and the sling bag will interfere with the shoulder straps of your primary pack.

– backpacks, photographic: forget about them. They are overpriced, over-padded and often don’t have room for the indispensable things you have to carry in the woods, like a jacket, 10 essentials (knife, compass, lighter, etc.), spare clothing, sandwiches!

– backpacks, technical: now we are onto something! Using a technical – i.e. made for hikers – backpack, and protecting your gear with a DIY padded insert or stuffing the lenses in spare socks, is one of the best solutions. Its only drawback is that it is a fine carrying method for gear which you don’t need often, but uncomfortable for camera and lenses you use the most. Every time you gotta stop, you will have to: put the pack down, search for the gear, make the photo, re-stuff the gear in the pack, put the pack on…geez I got bored just saying that!

(Lightly) uncomfortable as it was, the technical backpack method was my choice for many years, and still is for the less used gear. As an added benefit, especially if you use a pack with an external frame, you can easily transport an heavy tripod without too much effort. But how to access the gear we use the most? And yes, without using a bum bag?

There are two categories of people that wander in the woods with hefty loads on their back: photographers and military. So I decided to look into how the army men carry their stuff, and a solution for my problem sprung to mind.

Lowepro back view
The belt loops; as a background I used my DIY silnylon tarp (200g, 10 euro)

This is a Lowepro funny pack that costed me 10 euro. It’s really well made, even if the central compartment it is too much small for a big camera like the Canon 5D Mark II – but perfect for a 60D and the kind. For me this is not a problem, as my camera lives on a tripod or fastened on my backpack shoulder straps with a carabiner; if the weather turns bad I simply slide on the Canon an Optex rain cover or a DIY silnylon one – made from scraps left from the above tarp. This way I can carry up to 4 lenses in this bag. What are you saying? That I’m cheating because this IS a funny pack? Yes, I know, for now it is… But with a simple – real simple – and dirty cheap mod you can turn this in a leg holster type pack, like the one used by the military to carry their guns.

Lowepro view of the details

The belt loops

Yes, it is that simple. Just slide two loops of cord – preferably 550 lbs breaking point REAL (i.e. not cheap chinese made one) paracord – in each of the two top fabric, Lowepro made loops and use the original waist belt, instead, to tie the bag on your thigh. Done!

Now:

– when you are without a backpack you will pass your trousers belt trough the top loops;

– when you are out with you technical backpack on, instead, you will pass through the loops the backpack kidney belt.

As an added bonus I was able to put an additional pouch on the Lowepro belt in which I carry my first aid / survival kit. Nothing fancy, you know, just: band-aids, a lighter, map and compass when needed, a little knife, a bit of tape and rope (paracord or Dyneema / Armsteel / Spectra) and my phone – that doubles as a GPS. And a little pouch in which I carry a 10 euro (again…) chinese 10×25 monocular, quite useful to see from a distance trail signs and the kind without having to actually walk the distance to the sign, only to discover that it’s not the one you are seeking. It may seem an unnecessary luxury, but after you’ve hiked 20 Km you want to save every meter.

This solution worked like a charm for me, so I can finally say that I found the Graal of the hiker photographer: the perfect camera carrying system! I hope will do the same for you.