Seek Outside Exposure: The Ultimate Panel Loader Backpack for Backpacking Photographers

Mt. Sneffels, San Juan Mountains, Colorado
Seek Outside Unaweep-Exposure panel loader backpack up by Mt. Sneffels, San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

I have a knack for spotting good backpacks. Just by looking at pictures I can usually tell if a backpack is going to be a good heavy hauler or not. So when I stumbled upon Seek Outside’s website and studied the pictures of their backpacks, I was practically salivating — they just looked good. Really good. And they’re based in western Colorado, an extra bonus.

So I emailed them asking if they’d consider custom making a panel loader for me. I’ve written about panel loader backpacks before and why they are the best type of backpacks for hiking photographers. Panel loader backpacks have a big zipper that wraps around the backpack, enabling easy access to the main compartment. A photographer can place his or her padded camera case inside and have quick access to it, rather than having to dig down through the top like most backpacking backpacks. And unlike most photography-specific backpacks which fail miserably for serious hikers in the ergonomics department, a backpack from a real outdoors company will almost always perform much better on long hikes and backpack treks.

Well, I heard back from Seek Outside and was delighted to discover that not only are they based in Ouray, the same town I live in, but I also already knew the owner Kevin Timm! Why I didn’t realize all this before I cannot say; I must have been hiding under a rock (which is kind what living in Ouray is like, come to think about it!) I was also delighted to hear that Kevin had already been thinking about producing a panel loader and was eager to hear some of my input. The end result is the Seek Outside Unaweep-Exposure panel loader backpack, a lightweight heavy-hauler and quite possibly the ultimate backpack for the backpacking photographer! Read on to find out why I am so enamored with this backpack.

Hiking into the Grand Canyon with the Seek Outside Unaweep-Exposure panel loader backpack.
Hiking into the Grand Canyon with the Seek Outside Unaweep-Exposure panel loader backpack.

It carries a heavy load better than any other backpack

Seek Outside packs (also formerly known as Paradox Packs) are I think better known in hunting circles due to their capacity to comfortably haul extremely heavy loads (such as carrying elk out of the woods). The pack is almost like an external/internal hybrid, with a sturdy, contoured, mostly-external aluminum frame with a rugged pack that’s tightly coupled onto the frame. The result is an incredibly sturdy and supportive frame that can handle heavy loads with ease. The way the pack is designed holds it very closely to your back with most of the weight transferred to your hips and very little backward pull on your shoulders. The way the hip belt is connected also gives the pack a cushy ride that dampens the shock and leads to a kind of “floaty” feeling on your back. The pack rides so well on my back that it makes it feel lighter than it really is; during long hikes I got so used to it that I sometimes forgot I was even carrying a heavy load!

My longtime previous pack was a custom McHale panel loader. McHale packs have long been renowned for being excellent lightweight heavy haulers, arguably the reigning king of this class of backpack amongst diehard alpine gear freaks. I have used my McHale pack on countless treks over the last 8 years, and it has served me well, but I can honestly state that this Seek Outside pack rides even better than the McHale on my back — a feat I thought impossible.

But it’s also lightweight

While the Seek Outside packs are designed for heavy loads, the packs themselves are NOT heavy; on the contrary they are lighter than most comparable volume packs on the market! This is due to the simplistic and minimalistic design, the lightweight materials used, and the lack of unnecessary bells and whistles.

The weight of the Exposure pack is a mere 3.5 pounds; lighter than most daypacks!

The pack is made with lightweight but high strength XPAC material. There are several weights and colors you can choose from; I chose X50, a 2-layer 500D cordura, the heaviest but strongest of the options. I figured a few extra ounces is worth the extra durability. I chose a black camo color, how cool is that?! The inner side of the material has a rubbery-feeling waterproof laminate which apparently makes the pack waterproof enough that you can leave the rain cover at home. (I have not had a chance yet to test this in heavy rainfall).

It’s a panel loader and designed for accessibility

As mentioned above, panel loaders have a zipper that wraps around the outside allowing easy access to the contents (and camera) within. This is absolutely crucial for us photographers, who need to be able to pull our camera gear out as quickly as possible to catch the light. But even if I weren’t a photographer I’d still prefer panel loaders for the same reason — because digging down through a top loading backpack just sucks no matter what you’re doing. With a panel loader you don’t have to unpack everything just to get to something at the bottom; you simply unzip the pack and grab what you want, leaving the rest in place. So much more convenient.

Seek Outside Exposure Backpack

Seek Outside Exposure Backpack

Additionally, we designed the Exposure in such a way that you only have to unclip two compression straps in order to unzip the entire zipper. Or just one if you only need to unzip the top to get to your camera. Super quick. When a tripod is strapped to the side, the compression straps are designed so that the tripod remains strapped securely to the side even when the compression strap buckles are undone when accessing the zipper.

The panel loader zipper wraps all the way around the top and extends down to about 2/3 the length of the pack on both sides. This saves weight compared to a full-length zipper, and also a full-length zipper is totally unnecessary anyways since usually the bottom part of the pack is stuffed with a sleeping bag. The zipper is a sturdy heavy duty zipper with big teeth that will surely never bust.

The Exposure has no built-in photo gear compartments, but those are unnecessary and unwanted anyways for a backpacking backpack since they just contribute to the bloat and weight, and are inseparable from the pack. The best way to do this is to have your camera and lenses organized in a padded camera case, which you can then insert into the pack and pull out when you need it. On most of my backpacking trips I take one camera body with three lenses; these all fit into an F-stop Small Shallow ICU case, which I place at the top of the backpack (for easiest accessibility and also so that my other camping gear doesn’t squish my precious lenses). Most of F-stop’s ICU cases have the same 11.5″ width so should also fit nicely into the Exposure pack.

The fit is adjustable

Seek Outside’s packs have an ingenious and easy-to-use adjustable frame height. This in itself is a huge advantage over the McHale packs, which are custom built exactly to your specific torso length (and thus also much more expensive). With Seek Outside’s packs there are two simple adjustment straps right on the outside behind the shoulder harness that you can use to adjust the pack’s torso length by about two inches. You don’t have to take anything apart, or reset huge velcro pads, or any kind of hassle like that; you simply adjust two easily accessible straps. Since frame height is probably the single most important factor for proper backpack fit and comfort, the advantage of this easily adjustable frame height cannot be overstated.

In addition, each pack is available in 3 different base frame heights so you can be sure to get one that will fit perfectly regardless if you’re short or tall.

The pack compresses efficiently

Oftentimes when backpacking you’ll end up doing side hikes from camp and for that it’s helpful to have a backpack that compresses down smaller so that you don’t have a big gangly sagging pack to hold just a few day items. Seek Outside’s packs compress very well, and very easily.

The reason this pack compresses so well, and noteably better than most other packs, is because it’s got compression straps not only for the sides but also for the top and bottom of the pack. The most important of these is the bottom compression flap that can be cinched down to squeeze off the bottom space, allowing the contents to ride up in the middle of your back where they should be.

When all the compression straps (two bottom, two sides and back, and one up top) are cinched down, the pack snuggly holds your smaller load against your back, with no awkward sagging or loose items.

Because of the pack’s light weight and great compression capability, it really makes you second guess the need for a day pack at all, since this one is probably lighter anyways and rides so well.

It’s just about perfect!

While giving my feedback and helping develop the design of the Seek Outside Exposure pack, I was able to take all the details I’ve thought of to improve upon my McHale pack, and Kevin implemented them on the Exposure. The result is a pack that is pretty much perfect in my opinion. Perfect not only for backpacking photographers but for any backpacker for that matter.

We considered including a tripod sleeve on the side, to protect the tripod from scrapes. I’m on the fence about that… on one hand yes it would be nice to protect the tripod, but in the end I decided that it’s not worth the extra material weight. After all, it’s easy enough to slide the tripod under the two side compression straps, and who cares if the tripod gets a few nicks and scratches. But, it could be a nice future option, perhaps especially for people who do a lot of bushwhacking or slot canyoneering.

My only (minor) complaint is that it’s kind of difficult to reach back and get a water bottle out of the side bottle pockets (and put it back). But this is mainly due to the way that the pack rides high your hips, which is a good thing. So I think this minor issue is unavoidable, and certainly a worthy tradeoff for having a pack that rides so incredibly well.

It’s Reasonably Priced

For such a rugged, high quality, hand crafted backpack, the $449 price tag is well worth every penny. A comparable custom made McHale pack would cost more than twice that amount. And while many of the mass-market brand backpacks can be had for much cheaper (since they’re probably made in China), they most likely will not come close to matching the Seek Outside packs in durability and most importantly how well they can carry a heavy load on your back. This is a pack that should last decades of heavy use.

Gold Medal, 5 Stars, Highly Recommended, Two Thumbs Up, Etc.

If you can’t tell by now, I am deeply in love with this backpack. Compared to my previous custom backpack that already performed well, the Seek Outside Exposure is lighter, rides better, and has all the little details perfected. I’m grateful to Kevin Timm for listening to all my input and incorporating all of the details into the design. So thank you Kevin!

So, in summary, this backpack is IT. If you’re a backpacking photographer, or any backpacker for that matter, I wholeheartedly recommend the Seek Outside Unaweep-Exposure backpack!

UPDATE FOR 2020: Unfortunately, Seek Outside has discontinued production of the Exposure backpack. As much as I love panel loader backpacks, I still think the #1 priority of a backpack is how comfortably it carries a heavy load, which Seek Outside packs do very well, and at a fraction of the weight of comparable heavy-hauling backpacks. So despite the lack of panel loading, I would still recommend their Divide 4500 Backpack.

26 thoughts on “Seek Outside Exposure: The Ultimate Panel Loader Backpack for Backpacking Photographers

  1. Want! My trusty old Dana Designs pack is probably never going to die, but this sounds great. The compression options to use it better as a daypack would be awesome – that’s definitely a shortcoming of the Dana for me, since my backpacking photography often revolves around a basecamp. Just out of curiosity, Jack, since you’ve used the F-Stop Satori, any considerations or circumstances in which you might prefer that over the Seek Outside?

    1. Hi Jackson, in terms of hiking performance and comfort the Exposure totally outperforms the Satori, no question. I’ve done long treks with the Satori in both the Alps and Himalaya, and was never totally stoked on the way it rides on my back — it’s pretty good, but not great. The Exposure, on the other hand, is pure luxury in comparison. Not only is the design superior for carrying heavy loads, but the adjustable frame height ensures that you have a perfect fit (the Satori just has a fixed torso length and you just have to hope it fits your back, more or less).

      That said, I will still be using the Satori for certain circumstances: First, it’s small enough to use as a carry-on on airplanes while traveling. I think the external frame size of the Exposure makes it too big for this. In general the Exposure would be overkill for many casual traveling scenarios like walking around towns, or doing smaller photo hikes without a lot of extra gear. Also the Satori is still unbeatable for camera access and organizational features, so I still store my camera gear in the Satori for when I want to grab it quickly and run out to take some photos.

      But for any kind of multi-day hiking or long day hikes with extra gear I will be using the Exposure from now on. I would have definitely chosen the Exposure over the Satori for all my past Alps and Himalayan treks if I had it back then. But for general casual traveling or for photographers who aren’t really doing strenuous hikes, the Satori is probably the best choice.

  2. Great review Jack, thanks!
    I’m currently using a Lowepro primus aw, which is not very comfortable for any serious hiking and you won’t be able to get too much non-photography gear into it.
    I’ll probably try to get my hands on an Exposure before my next big trip 🙂
    (do they ship it overseas?)
    I wonder though – can they fit a tripod strap in the middle of the backside of the pack?
    I’m using a heavy Gitzo tripod and the weight would be more balance if it would be loaded at the middle of the pack.
    Another great feature which I would search for in a pack is a place for a water bag. I usually drink from a Source water bag which is much more comfortable for drinking on the go, as the mouth of the bottle is just next to your chest…

    1. Hi Yair, thanks for the comment! You should probably ask Kevin at Seek Outside your questions; he would know the answers better than I. Take care, Jack

  3. Hello Jack. Thank you for this review. I’m looking for a nice panel loader for multiday hikes and also for travelling around the world. What do you think. Do I need a separat cover to travel with a airplane because of the loose belts and straps and to protect the “outside” frame. Is it possible for you to make more detail pictures of the pack. On the seek outside website is not much to see. Regards Peter from Switzerland

  4. Hi Jack, I’m looking for tech details on the suspension and specifics of what makes it so much more comfortable. This pack reminds me of my 30 yr. old Jansport D3, but without the side support wings. It too is an ergonomic external with the same features. Since personal preferences are different for different people, I was wondering if you would consider adding to a good review some close ups and details of why this is more comfortable and carries better than yout McHale? There are so many factors when it comes to suspension I would like pics and possible reasons why this might be an improvement to the external pack I keep going back to. I’m trying to decide on a McHale, this exposure, or my own improved bag replacement for the D3 frame. Thanks for the review! Noah

    1. Hi Noah, thanks for your comment. Yes, I should have included more close-up photos of the pack in my review. Unfortunately I’m just too darn busy to do that at this point. I’d suggest contacting Seek Outside directly; I’m sure they’d be happy to help you out.

  5. Excellent review. Thanks Jack; this is really great info. I had owned a McHale Super Inex years ago, but was relieved of my ownership by someone who apparently thought they needed it more than I did. Fast forward several years, and I finally got back into packing and photography [medium format/technical], and I began looking at my options more seriously. I have tried each of the F-Stop Tilopa, Sukha [successor to the Satori], Lotus, and Loka. I helped crowd-fund the Shimoda series, and I have both 40L and 60L. So, naturally, I found your reviews *after* all that trial & error. 😉 Anyway, I like the F-Stop and the Shimoda a lot. The Shimoda 40L is my current go-to pack for day treks, and for plane travel [I put the pack itself in my checked luggage, and the Core units [similar to F-Stop ICUs] in the Shimoda roll-aboard. For actual camping, it’s the 60L or the Sukha. Until now, maybe. I have an SO Exposure on order, and I am in the process of getting a new panel-loader pack built by Dan. Would love to have a pack with the rear-panel-access feature of the F-Stop/Shimoda, but that may be a bridge too far. Thanks again!

    1. Hi Greg, it sounds like you are a backpack junkie like me! I’ve previously used the F-Stop Satori for years; F-Stops are one of the best photographer-specific hiking packs out there, but I still feel they fall short in the serious hiking comfort department. I haven’t tried their other newer packs, but don’t really see any reason why they’d be much different. Maybe I’m pickier than most about my pack comfort — for me that’s the clear priority even over camera access. Anyhow, I’d love to hear how you like the S.O. Exposure and also the McHale!

      1. Jack, I completely agree. Based on your review, I ordered an Exposure, loved the service at SO, and I really like the pack. I am still moving forward with Dan on a replacement for my lost Inex, but this time with a panel style. I also recently tried the Atlas Athlete, and as photo backpacks go, it is pretty well designed. One of the great things about Dan is that he is a perfectionist, and he is able to accommodate some physical unevenness in my shoulder area that is the legacy of cancer treatment.But for people who are “symmetrical,” and who actually need to backpack, as opposed to merely carry camera gear a short distance, there is to my mind no better deal than the Exposure.

  6. Hi, Jack. Coming here late… Happened upon your review of the SO Exposure as i’m reconsidering my pack situation. I’m moderately serious about photography, so your review caught my attention.

    For years, i’ve lugged an external-frame, Kelty Tioga 5500, which has always done well by me in terms of comfort and durability. But at five plus pounds, and as my bones get older, i’m looking to cut weight wherever i can. I’ve been using an Osprey Xenith 88 for multi-day winter outings, which has a large capacity for lugging all the extra winter gear, but is a similar weight (close to six pounds!) as the Kelty.

    Part of the appeal of Seek Outside is the external frame, which feels much more stable to me than most internal- (or hybrid) frame packs i’ve tried. I’m wondering if you’ve used the Exposure 5000 for winter backpacking, and, if so, how do you find it accommodates the extra gear (microspikes, crampons, snowshoes, additional clothing, etc.) needed for winter outings. Some of this has to be attached to the outside of the pack, so i’m curious about how easily this pack accommodates that.

    Thanks in advance for any feedback!

    1. Hi Nick, the Exposure can become a bit tight with the full winter gear setup. I typically have to strap my shovel, crampons, and skins (if I’m not using them at the time) to the outside of the pack. Perhaps the tent poles too. Snowshoes would definitely have to be strapped to the outside. The pack has enough straps and/or connection points to make this possible, and like I wrote it carries a heavy load great, so strapping stuff to the outside still handles well. Hope that helps!

  7. Hi Jack,
    I love your site and your photography. The sections here on the Exposure pack are comprehensive but I have one or two questions.
    The main reason given originally for moving from an external frame to an internal frame (40 some years ago) was a lack of balance on uneven terrain, such as going uphill cross country. Do you feel this is/is not true of the Exposure?
    I myself rarely get too far off trail anymore but I would like to hear your comments on this since you own both a McHale internal and the Exposure.
    Once again thank you for your thoughts on gear and photography.
    The Dalles, Or.

    1. Hi Thomas, the Exposure is more like a hybrid external/internal pack. What I mean is that the backpack part is tightly coupled to the frame, not just strapped on like true external frame pack. So the balance is very good, just like an internal frame pack if not better. Take care, Jack

      1. Have you looked at the Gregory Baltoro? It comes in heavier (by 1-1.3 lbs) but has more openings with the top, bottom and panel loader. Also reputed to be very comfortable to carry. Derrick Snider Photography, also in Western Colorado, gives it five stars on Gregory’s website. He puts his ICU into its panel loader door.
        I own a LowePro Whistler350 AW but it’s at most a day pack and even without the ICU it still weighs 4lbs. I’d rather carry a 5lb pack with a great suspension vs a 4lb with a so-so one.

        1. Hi Thomas, as far as I can tell, the Baltoro is NOT a panel loader — it’s a top loader with a side zip. So although there are more openings, in my opinion it’s far superior to just have one big panel zip opening. And like you said, it’s a pound heavier. The Baltoro may be a sweet pack, but it wouldn’t be a contender for me.

        2. Hi Tom, you’re right, I missed the Baltoro’s back panel zip. Just watched the video and now I see it. One thing to note, you’ll see that to access the panel zipper you have to unclick two side compression straps which is probably where you’d strap a tripod, which would then fall off. My overall impression of the Baltoro is that it’s got a whole lot of bells and whistles, but all those features (zippers, pockets, compartments, etc.) are adding a significant amount of extra weight.

          In comparison the Exposure is far simpler, with a MUCH beefier/sturdier frame, and noticeably less weight. Of course the only way to know for sure is real life testing, but if I had to bet money I’d bet that the Seek Outside packs ride much better with a heavy load. Just comparing the frames it’s apples and oranges.

  8. According to SeekOutside they are represented in Portland by the Mountain Shop and REI has everything else(practically). Next time I’m down there (90miles away) I’ll try to check them out. Thanks for your I good points.

  9. I have been searching a searching for the dimension of this pack. The only thing I can find is the height and circumference.
    Seek Outside hasn’t responded to my inquiries.

    Can you offer any insight into the current models dimensions?


    1. Hi Mike, the current model’s are bit larger than mine; I do not know the exact dimenions of the current one. Perhaps the contact at Seek Outside is out backpacking! 😉 You can also try them on Facebook where I usually see them respond quickly.

  10. Jack, interested in hearing more about your experiences vs Mchale. All the other reviews I read seemed to concur it was the ultimate load hauler for the heavy stuff we end up carrying as photographers. My interest in a Mchale is that I feel it could pack up a bit smaller and be more versatile compared to a seek outside. Also, I have still heard some complaints about the pseudo-external frame regarding its width and how it feels any time you bump into a branch or rock with the frame.

    1. Hi Andrew, both McHale and Seek Outside are (as far as I know) the premier heavy hauler packs available. Both are great. The advantage of McHale packs are that they are custom tailored to your exact measurements, so you know you’ll get a perfect fit (but because of this, they are also a LOT more expensive). But, if the Seek Outside pack fits you well, it carries a heavy load just as well.

      Both have heavy duty frames (which is partly why they carry heavy loads so well), so I’m not sure there’s any major difference as far as packing them up smaller. Of course this probably depends on the specific models too.

      The Seek Outside frame is bulkier and wider, but I’ve never had any issues with bumping into branches/rocks (frankly that sounds like a silly complaint to me). Maybe if you’re solely backpacking through tight slot canyons it might matter, but in reality this is a non issue in my opinion.

      I think either option is a fantastic choice. I love my Seek Outside pack, but if not for SO, I would invest in another McHale in a heartbeat.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.