Panel Loader Backpacks for Hiking Photographers

It’s probably safe to say that most photographers are gearheads to some degree, whether we’ll admit it or not. We devote much effort into researching all the specs and reviews to find the cameras and lenses that suit our needs as closely as possible. But as a photographer who shoots mostly while hiking or backpacking, I am as much concerned about HOW I carry my camera as I am with the camera itself!

Panel loader backpacks
F-Stop Satori, Granite Gear Aji 50, and Boreas Sapa Trek

When it comes to finding a photo backpack that not only provides easy camera access but is actually designed for carrying weight comfortably on long treks, the options are surprisingly few. The vast majority of dedicated photo-bag companies seem to have a design philosophy based entirely around camera storage, with human ergonomics a distant afterthought. These backpacks offer endless configurations for camera and lens compartments, but they are typically overweight with under-built, poorly designed suspensions (the frame, shoulder straps, and hip belts) and little extra space for normal hiking/camping gear. These packs might be good for carrying gear across the street from your car to a roadside overlook, or maybe even for a short day hike, but serious hikers cannot rely on these backpacks to comfortably carry a load for many miles.

The obvious solution for most hiking photographers is to simply stuff their camera gear into a real backpacking backpack and deal with the inconveniences. The outdoor backpacking companies really know how to make comfortable, high performance backpacks; however, quick and efficient camera access is usually not even a consideration at all.

This huge gap between camera-centric and athlete-centric backpack design has left a big niche market which is begging to be filled, but with surprisingly few companies attempting (successfully) to do so. The only company I know of that is proactively filling this niche is F-stop, but the demand for their packs is so great that they cannot keep up with the production; pre-orders of their out of stock backpacks can take half a year to be fulfilled (as did mine).

So, are there any other backpack options for the hiking photographer? Yes, panel loader backpacks! Unlike the usual backpack design that has cumbersome top-loading access with buckles and cinch straps, panel loaders have zippers that unzip the entire pack, allowing for quick and easy access to the contents within. The camera gear can be organized in a basic padded camera case (of which there are many options), and the case is simply placed into the panel loader backpack. This is essentially what F-stop has done, with a few extra bells and whistles.

I’ve done a LOT of research lately trying to find the best panel loader backpack options for photography, and in this article I will share and review some of the options that I’ve found.

Panel loader backpacks
F-Stop Satori, Granite Gear Aji 50, and Boreas Sapa Trek

The Hiking Photographer

Backpacker

No gear review would be complete without first explaining the reviewer’s own needs and requirements. In my case, as I’ve mentioned already, I am a hiking photographer. And not just short strolls; I frequently do long strenuous day hikes or backpacking treks in steep mountains and cold weather. Therefore, I need a high-performance backpack that can comfortably carry heavy loads consisting of about 10-15 pounds of SLR camera gear plus all the other normal hiking gear. And the pack should allow quick access to my camera so I can shoot when I have the impulse without hassling around with the backpack and its contents.

For the kind of hiking I do, I need two backpacks: a big one for multi-day backpacking treks with all the camping gear, and a smaller one for long day hikes, traveling, and hut trekking.

I already have the big backpacking pack dialed – I use a custom built McHale panel loader for this. (More on this below).

For the smaller backpack I’ve been searching for something in the 50-60 liter range – enough space for the camera gear plus possibly a couple changes of clothing, down jacket, rain jacket, rain pants, hat/beanie, gloves, pack towel, sleeping sack liner, headlamp and other small electronics, some food and water, and enough extra space for possible extra items like climbing harness, helmet, ice axe, or crampons (some of which could be lashed to the outside of the pack). All this gear (including the backpack) comes to a total of about 30-35 lb., give or take.

As for camera gear, I currently use an average-sized SLR with three medium-short lenses. These fit into an f-stop small/shallow padded camera case. However, there are many, many options for padded camera cases like this; before this one I used a Tamrac bag which was also nice. The main difference to consider is that the f-stop opens up on its side while the Tamrac opens from the top; this could be better one way or the other depending on how it sits in the backpack.

Without further ado, here are some backpack options I’ve found that fit my criteria:

F-stop Satori

I’ll go ahead and talk about the F-stop Satori first, since in many respects it is the ideal model of what I’ve been looking for: 62-liter capacity, great camera access features, sturdy suspension with aluminum frame stays, and not too terribly heavy at just over 4 lbs.

F-Stop Satori
F-Stop Satori back panel access

The Satori’s most unique feature – along with all their packs – is the back panel zipper entry. This is a brilliant feature which allows you to open the pack fully from the back side under the shoulder straps. This is even better than regular panel loading access, because it’s easier to just plop the backpack on the ground and access it from the back rather than flipping it over to access the front. I don’t know of any other similar sized backpack that offers this, except for the Dakine Guide pack (but with that one only the center section of the back panel zips open, which is not nearly as useful when trying to pull camera gear out). With the Satori the entire full width of the back panel zips open, allowing immediate access to your camera case, which you can also clip in place so that it stays positioned where you want it.

Another neat feature of the Satori is how the entire top lid zips open, rather than the usual two buckles with cinch cord. Quick and easy.

F-Stop Satori top access
F-Stop Satori top lid access

The Satori has a fixed 18.5″ torso length, which will probably work well for people with torso lengths within an inch or so of that. My torso is about 18″ and the pack fits me nicely – not perfect, but pretty darn good. The sturdy aluminum frame and thick padded waist belt handle heavy loads with ease.

The 62-liter capacity is a perfect size for hut trekking, long day hikes with lots of gear, or possibly even overnight trips with minimal camping gear. I can fit everything I might need for those types of hikes without having to jam it in too tightly. The pack comes with an internal padded laptop pouch, but I promptly cut that out with a razor blade to lighten the pack and free up even more space.

F-Stop packs are noticeably well-built, with tough materials, big burly zippers, and robust stitching; it seems the Satori will last a long time. With the Satori, F-Stop has struck a very nice balance between weight, sturdiness, and camera access features. This is a pack that hiking photographers will really appreciate, and even non-photographers should consider this pack due to it’s all around excellent design and access features.

Now for the bad news. Not only are the packs arguably overpriced at $359, but the company has some serious problems with its production and they seem to be out of stock more than not. I pre-ordered a Satori back in January with a quoted delivery in March; but at the beginning of June still no Satori! With a big international trip looming I started scrambling to find alternative packs in case the Satori didn’t show up in time. (Thus, this article).

True to their marketing efforts, the f-stop Satori is indeed the best overall option for the hiking photographer – if you can get your hands on one. But just be warned: you probably should not pre-order out of stock items from F-stop if you are impatient or have any kind of deadline!

Granite Gear Aji V.C. 50

The Granite Gear Aji 50 (women’s version here) is an innovative panel loader pack and a truly viable alternative to F-stop. What makes this backpack so cool is a full wrap around panel loading zipper. You can zip it open from the top, from the bottom, or both!

Granite Gear Aji 50
Granite Gear Aji 50

Although not at all marketed towards photographers, photogs will appreciate the way that the top section of the panel loader perfectly fits a slim camera case like the f-stop small-shallow icu. You can just zip it open, flip the top back, and boom, there’s your camera gear ready for you!

At just over 2.5 lbs, this pack is also significantly lighter than the f-stop Satori. The weight savings does come at a cost though: the Aji 50 uses a plastic framesheet rather than aluminum stays, which means that it doesn’t handle super heavy loads quite as well. That said, when packed to the gills with my normal kit it still rides nicely on my back. You just wouldn’t want to fill it entirely with too many heavy lenses.

The hip belts are very nice on this pack – pre-molded and sturdy, with multiple attachment points for accessory hip belt pouches.

The Aji 50 is available in two torso length options: Regular (18-21″) or Large (21″ to 25″). I tried the Regular. You can also order different hip belt sizes as well.

Sadly, although I fell in love with this pack design right away, I don’t think it’s going to work for me for my upcoming hut trekking travels. The 50 liter capacity fits all of my clothes and camera gear, but leaves absolutely no extra space for food and extra items like crampons, etc. If the pack were 60 liters and had stiffer aluminum suspension, it would really be tough to choose between this and the Satori.

The Aji 50 would be a perfect backpack for a photographer with a smaller mirrorless camera setup, or for a non-photographer ultralight backpacker or traveler. For a full-SLR-kit photographer, I think it’s a bit too small for anything beyond a long day hike. But if that’s your intended use for the pack, it’s worth serious consideration over the Satori because of its lighter weight, lower cost, and very useful full-panel zip design.

Boreas Sapa Trek

The Boreas Sapa Trek is another intriguing and innovative panel loading backpack. Instead of a more traditional wrap-around panel loading zipper, this one has a unique Y shape zipper system.

Boreas Sapa Trek
Boreas Sapa Trek

The Y-shaped zipper system seems simple enough in theory, but after initial testing I found it to be a fairly flawed design. Firstly, compared to regular single-zip panel loaders, it is more complicated to zip open (three zip motions instead of just one). Also, it becomes tricky to fully load the pack because while you are cramming things in there, the zippers tend to want to zip open under the tension. Finally, there is no way to secure the main vertical zipper in the closed position; when the pack is fully loaded that zipper doesn’t always close all the way – it just sits there not fully zipped near the top, like pants with no belt or button. Considering that this zipper is holding all the tension of the pack contents, and it’s not a very big tough zipper to begin with, it seems like a bad design that could potentially fail with a heavy load.

At about 3.5 lb. and 55L capacity, the Sapa Trek is heavier than the Aji 50 but also offers a little more space (though like I just mentioned it is difficult to fully load the pack). It too utilizes a plastic framesheet suspension instead of aluminum stays, so again you won’t want to load this thing up with too many lenses.

The Sapa Trek is also available in two different torso sizes: Medium (19″) or Large (20.5″). Although my torso length is only one inch shorter than the medium, I found it to be way too large for me. Just didn’t fit me at all.

I was excited about the Sapa Trek when I researched it, but was quickly disappointed with the Y-zip design when I tried it out in person. Non-photographers might like this pack for traveling, but I think in almost every sense the Granite Gear Aji 50 is a superior pack for anybody.

Custom McHale Panel Loader

A far-fetched solution for most people, but worth mentioning, is the possibility of having Dan McHale in Seattle build a custom backpack for you. I’ve been using the same big McHale panel loader backpack since 2007 for my backpacking treks.

McHale backpack

These are streamlined, no-frills backpacks, but they are built to your exact custom fit and specifications, they are tough as nails, and they carry a heavy load better than probably any other backpack on the market. As you would expect from a handmade, custom created item, McHale packs are very expensive and the process takes some time to get through. But the pack will fit you perfectly and will last a lifetime.

For multi-day backpacking treks with full camping gear, when comfortably carrying a heavy load is of utmost importance, I do believe this is the best option of all (if you backpack frequently enough to justify the high entry fee).

It would be possible of course to have Dan build a panel loader like this but smaller for traveling, long day hikes, and hut treks. But in these cases weight is not such a critical factor, so it probably makes sense to look at the other much less expensive options.

Seek Outside Unaweep-Exposure Panel Loader

UPDATE, JUNE 2015: Take pretty much everything I just said about the McHale, refine the details, cut the price in half, and you have my new favorite heavy-hauler backpack: the Seek Outside Unaweep-Exposure panel loader backpack. This backpack, which I actually helped to design the detail features on, is lightweight at 3.5 pounds, and carries heavy loads even better than the McHale and certainly better than any other packs in this article. Read my full review of the Seek Outside Exposure here.

Other Options?

The packs I reviewed above are the ones I most considered buying and trying out for various reasons, but they are not the only ones on the market. Though I haven’t seen any of the following in person, here are a few more options worth researching. If you know of any other good panel loaders, please let me know in the comments below!

Kelty Redwing 50: 52 liter, 3 lbs 4oz., big side pockets, ventilated back panel.

ULA Camino: 40+ liter capacity, lightweight at 3 lbs, two aluminum stays with foam framesheet, available in four sizes.

Mountainsmith Ghost 50: 50 liter, almost 4 lbs, vented back panel, adjustable torso length, kind of a goofy shape(?).

Clik Elite Contrejour 40: At 40 liters, this pack would be smaller than the target size I’m reviewing in this article, but worth a look because of its photography-oriented design features.

Naneu Adventure Outlander 50L: This pack features an innovative integrated removable camera case. There’s also a larger 80L volume model.

The Verdict

For multi-day backpacking treks with full SLR kit, camping gear, and lots of food to carry, the Seek Outside Exposure or a custom McHale panel loader wins hands down. Your back will thank you for it!

For hut trekking (when you don’t need to bring all the camping gear) or short overnight backpack trips, with a full SLR kit, the f-stop Satori gets the award due to its overall balance of spacious capacity, heavier load carrying capability, and excellent camera gear access. This would also be the best choice for any kind of day hikes if you’re carrying a huge camera kit with lots of lenses.

For long day hikes with basic SLR gear, or for hut treks or short-term backpacking with a small mirrorless camera kit, the Granite Gear Aji 50 wins because of its lightweight, streamlined design and hyper-convenient all-the-way-around panel access.

UPDATE: JUNE 2015: The Seek Outside Exposure is THE pack for serious hiking, regardless of the demands I just listed. It’s lighter than the Satori and carries heavy loads far more comfortably. The Satori does have better access and more organizational features, and is small enough to carry-on airplanes, but for any kind of hiking the Exposure totally outperforms it.