Fine, that's hyperbole, but I've long been looking for a bag that meets my needs. In particular the challenge is to find a bag for "adventure travel" or hardcore touristing; it needs to not only carry my camera gear, but also a jacket and other layers, lunch, water, maps, souvenirs etc.
Lowepro Primus AW (AW is Lowepro-ese for having a rain cover, All Weather). It has a great carry system with a proper hip belt, sternum strap and load lifters. It also has a relatively large non-camera compartment, and a tripod attachment. It has served me well on multiple trips to Japan and elsewhere, but a few annoyances remained: the built-in tripod carry system was entirely inadequate for a medium-sized tripod (Gitzo GT2541 with Benro B0 ballhead). Its non-camera compartment was still too small, in particular it was too small to handle an A4 / Letter sized object.
When I saw the Clik Elite Obscura on sale through The Clymb, it seemed to address all these concerns. What followed was a year-long saga to actually get one; without going into detail, I can say that I was very impressed by the pre-sales customer service of both The Clymb and Clik Elite.
Last week I finally received the pack, and last weekend had a chance to load it up and hike a good six miles (close to ten km) with it. Here are my observations of the backpack.
The carry harness is not height-adjustable, and neither is the Lowepro. Both have well realized shoulder strap length, sternum strap and load lifter adjustments. The Lowepro's sternum strap isn't height adjustable, whereas the Obscura lets you slide it up and down a bit along the shoulder straps. Most importantly, both fit my 5'11" frame great. I had frequently used the Lowepro as an example of a superb harness, but the Obscura is clearly better. The material is an open-cell mesh that is very breathable and comfortable; there's a central air channel (or spine channel) with a mesh cover over a ribbed back plate.
To carry water with the Lowepro meant either putting a bottle in the side mesh pocket, or putting a bottle in the main compartment. The Obscura has a side mesh pocket as well, but also has a dedicated sleeve for a hydration bladder, complete with a little loop on top for hanging the bladder on. The fit is really tight, though. I had a really hard time getting my partially filled 100 oz / 3 l bladder into the sleeve. The loops on the shoulder straps are too tight to fit a Camelbak valve cover, so routing the hose is another challenge — for my hike I just let the hose flop out the side. On the other hand, the bladder compartment has a large drain on the bottom, so if the bladder should burst or leak, the water will evacuate through the drain rather than seep into the bag. I'm not sure why this isn't common sense with bladder sleeves.
The Lowepro camera compartment is pretty rigid, so having the main compartment filled has little impact on the space the camera occupies and vice versa. The Obscura camera compartment is basically just a partially padded internal pouch on the bottom of the bag, so if there's a lot of other load in the backpack, inserting the camera can require a bit more effort as you have to push all the other things aside. The flip side of this is that whatever room the camera isn't taking up on the Obscura is automatically available for other use.
Another bonus the Obscura offers is a padded laptop sleeve inside the main compartment. It's just a hair too small for a 15" Macbook Pro, but it's fairly deep. There is no good way to carry a laptop on the Lowepro. When traveling, I usually have my laptop in a neoprene sleeve in the outside pocket of the Lowepro, but without tying the sleeve to the bag there's a real danger that it'll fall out, and tying it to the bag is a pain at airport security check points. The Obscura's laptop sleeve is felt lined and can be seen in the above picture just next to the marsupial pouch.
It warrants mentioning that in practice accessing the Lowepro's main compartment requires unbuckling the load lifters, this isn't necessary with the Obscura. Accessing the Lowepro's external pocket fully requires unbuckling another set of straps, which I in practice kept forgetting to buckle back up when I picked it up, and ended up with a tripod flopping around until I refastened them. Aside from the hip and sternum belts, there's nothing to unbuckle on the Obscura.
Slightly larger than the Lowepro, the Obscura is just under 22" tall on the exterior which should allow it to meet typical airline overhead bin size requirements as well.
The space is vast, though not cavernous. My Mountain Hardwear Viperine 2 tent fits easily — I could load a body with lens attached, an extra lens, two person tent, sleeping bag, pillow, and mess kit in without too much trouble. At that point, though, not much else would fit.
The Lowepro is made from beefy recycled ballistic nylon, the Obscura is light-weight ripstop like your typical hiking backpack. In practice I doubt this makes much difference, unless you plan to test the packs against road rash.
- Superbly comfortable to carry.
- Tripod carry system allows stable carrying of a medium-sized tripod with ball head.
- Hydration bladder pocket.
- Easily accessed exterior compartments.
- Great flexible space in the bag, seamlessly adjusting from camera space to general use.
- Tripod carry system is a tight fit for a medium tripod.
- Side opening for camera compartment is too snug for a lot of cameras and cannot be used while pack is worn.
- Hydration pocket is tight, hose routing can be challenging.
- Camera compartment is only lightly padded, and won't offer nearly the kind of protection the Lowepro does.
- There are only limited external attachment loops. A few at the bottom of the bag, or very top for carrying a tent, sleeping pad or such would greatly add to the utility of the bag.