Still, backpacks come and go in my photo arsenal. So let’s see how the Explore 30 measures up inside and out - and whether or not it has staying power for the long haul.
My favorite photo packs have traditionally featured a fully customizable interior compartment that runs the full length of the pack, decked out with movable padded dividers. At one time, my favorite was the dual-tier design, physically separated into discrete top and bottom compartments, largely to allow for personal items at the top and photo gear in the bottom. The problem with most dual-tier bags, however, is that they create an unbalanced carrying situation, heavily weighted at the bottom where the gear is stowed, meaning the bag could throw you off-balance on tricky terrain, not to mention being a drag on your aching shoulders. And these bags also made it more difficult, in some instances, to see inside and access your camera gear.
And then there are what I’d call “hybrid” designs that utilize a removable padded insert, which in itself is fully customizable with the included padded dividers. In these bags, the inserts may be included or sold separately. In most cases, it’s not really practical to remove the insert, because gear is left exposed to the elements. And what do you do with that insert once it’s out of the bag, no pun intended.
A better design adds a simple solution to this removable insert: a portage-friendly cover, so you can carry your gear sans backpack when and where needed. Leave the pack back at the hotel or consign it to baggage, with the gear safely at your side.
And this is where Shimoda enters the picture, taking this hybrid design to the next level – with user-customizable inserts, available in a range of sizes, allowing you to rearrange the bag’s interior to your heart’s content. Not only that, these inserts also let you access the bag from either the back or side, depending on the inserts you use and how you arrange them. What's more, portage-ready covers are provided with the inserts. And the real beauty of it all is, it works.
For this report Shimoda sent me an array of products, including the Explore 30 backpack, two inserts, an accessory pouch, and rain cover.
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Where can I get more info and tech specs?
Shimoda’s Product-Guide Videos
Shimoda Explore 30 - How much is it?
$259.95 (available in a choice of colors)
Accessories sold separately:
$74.95 - Medium Core Unit (for DSLR outfit, accessed via back-panel)
$49.95 - Small Core Unit (back-panel or side-panel access)
$29.95 - Accessory Case Medium
$8.95 - Rain Cover
Larger packs and other Core Unit sizes available. Packs also available in kit form, Core Units included.
Shimoda-speak for insert, the Core Unit is designed to allow you to tailor the bag to your specific needs. Since I’d planned to use my Nikon D500 with Tamron 100-400mm lens attached, I was sent the medium Core Unit.
Out of curiosity, I wanted to see if my Tamron 150-600mm zoom would also fit. It was a perfect fit – on its own, detached from the camera, which sits in the bag separately. (Mirrorless users - note that there’s a separate mirrorless medium Core Unit, but, if you adapt your DSLR lenses to your mirrorless system or if your mirrorless is full-frame and of a more robust size and you use long, fast lenses, you may want to consider the full-size unit).
I tend to prefer having my gear at the ready, and so prefer to carry the lens attached to the camera. This also makes stowing the gear easier in case conditions suddenly change. So, if I’d intended to carry the 150-600 instead, I would likely have opted for the large Core Unit. But I’m quite happy with the medium. It’s the right fit for my gear, which includes a flash, maybe an extra lens or two (say a macro and wide zoom), and then some – all held snugly in place. And, as noted, if I decide to carry the monster lens, I could make do.
I should also point out that Shimoda’s Core Units are not made with traditional foam materials. Shimoda uses compression-molded EVA closed-cell foam, which imbues the insert’s walls and divider system with a truly protective housing for your gear. The Core Unit and dividers are rigid enough to form a solid shell around your cameras and lenses, yet “foamy” enough to absorb shock. This construction also makes it easier to reposition the dividers, which are aided by their own unique “wing-like” hook-and-loop design. You can quickly reconfigure the interior on the fly (pun intended).
The Backpack Harness System and Beyond
Here’s where it gets even more interesting. Shimoda’s harness system is eminently suited to the task and should be a benchmark by which other photo backpack harnesses are measured. The shoulder straps are not too heavily padded while being wide enough to sit securely on your shoulders. I rarely had to make adjustments while in the field.
The harness is the perfect complement to the airflow padding that rests against your back. Load-lifter straps also add to the comfort level and balance when wearing the pack. Not only that, the pack is supported by an internal frame for the ultimate in back comfort and trekking ease.
The pack rides on your back in a way that encourages the hip belt to embrace the hips – exactly where it should be to do the job right and take much of the weight off your shoulders, similar to traditional backpacks designed for seemingly endless treks in the woods. And if you find it’s not working for you, there’s always the option of correcting the position of the bag on your back (lower or higher) via a proprietary height-adjustment system to suit your torso. You could also swap out the provided shoulder straps for a different set (optionally available) specifically designed around a woman’s frame – very nice, Shimoda, and highly commendable, although, frankly, anyone could benefit from this option. The hip belt, I should note, is removable (though I prefer to leave it in place, in case it’s needed), and its heft is just right - neither overly padded and stiff nor flimsy.
Another nice touch: these shoulder straps do double-duty and include additional pockets for, say, a small water bottle and small cellphone for ready access to these items. Rounding out the shoulder harness system is, of course, an adjustable sternum (chest) strap.
Who Should Use the Shimoda Explore 30?
Nature & wildlife photographers, travel photographers – and any photographer with an adventurous spirit
Tailored to meet the needs of the everyday hiker or traveler to the more intrepid backpacker who expects to be on rugged terrain for days on end, the Explore series offers a rugged and practical design engineered for flexibility. The Explore 30 specifically aims at giving you a trail-worthy photo pack while keeping the load light. With the medium Core Unit installed, I was able to conveniently carry a DSLR with 100-400mm zoom attached (even with a sling strap attached to the bottom of the camera), plus a flash and spare batteries, with room to spare for other photo gear, along with a light jacket/windbreaker. In fact, the pack and insert were deep enough so that the camera could ride grip side up, for a fast grab when opened from the rear or side (side access with small insert). The pack proved as comfy to wear as it was protective of my gear. While on its own, this pack should easily weather many conditions, I would recommend adding the optional rain cover for added protection in a drenching downpour. I have no reservations in recommending the Shimoda Explore 30 to any photographer who plans to explore nature, regardless of the terrain or season. This Shimoda pack is, without question, the total package when it comes to trekking gear for any outdoor photographic pursuit.
The Shimoda Explore 30 was a very pleasant surprise. I have yet to see a finer crafted photo backpack. Everything about this pack smacks of thoughtful design with the adventure photographer in mind. There’s plenty of room for extras, not least of which is a rain parka or windbreaker in the roomy outside front pocket, plus first-aid kit and more in various other spaces, with the pack also accommodating a tripod as well. If you’re of a mind, you could stick a small laptop or full-size tablet (up to 13”) in a padded interior sleeve.
And if you’re wondering, yes, there is room for a water bottle on the pack itself, in a spacious hideaway pocket. This pocket is removable, to be replaced perhaps by a padded lens pouch or other accessory pouch (with matching attachment points).
I took the Explore 30 out on several birding walks. Granted, none was as grueling as some of the hikes I’d been on in the past, but getting around Chicago’s public transit system with a pack on your back can easily be a trying experience in and of itself. I wore the pack under hot and humid conditions for several hours on end and rarely felt any discomfort (except for a slight pinching under the arm in one instance, which was easily corrected on the spot or, in colder weather, with added outerwear). While, upon first examining the water bottle pocket, I considered it a bit oversize, but, when I found I could fit both my large Nalgene together with a bottle of insect repellant, I quickly changed my thinking. The bug spray was stored in its own plastic bag, just to be safe – to be used when off the trails.
All I can add is, I look forward to each outing with this bag.
- Overall design, especially the use of lightweight yet time-tested ripstop nylon in the shell and easy-slide YKK zippers designed to keep the rain and dust out; I also liked the fact that the back panel opens like a hinged door, which stays out of your way (not like most packs where the flap inconveniently opens like a drawbridge)
- Remarkably comfortable and fully adjustable backpack harness system, complete with load-lifter straps, with some cool extras thrown into the mix; there’s even an emergency whistle built into the chest strap
- While maintaining the pack’s shape, the Explore 30’s internal frame provides better balance and support on uneven terrain and ensures the pack rests comfortably and securely on your back at all times
- Convenient, fully user-customizable interior, courtesy of thoughtfully crafted Core Units (optional camera gear inserts, which come complete with easy-to-use padded dividers), feels solid, yet offers the right amount of cushioning to ensure a safe ride against bumps and grinds on the trails or when negotiating busy streets; these inserts can be configured to hold the gear you need and in a way that keeps it secure, well protected and easily accessible; medium DSLR Core Unit in particular can hold DSLR with attached 100-400mm lens, flash, a couple of extra lenses, spare batteries for camera and flash, and more besides, with a sling strap attached to the camera
- Dual access to gear (rear or side), depending on the Core Unit you use and how you arrange it
- Each insert comes with its own “skin” (cover), which essentially gives you a fully functioning, water-repellent camera bag; the medium Core Unit features a carrying handle, while the small unit adds strap lugs and a shoulder strap (although you may want to substitute a padded strap for long treks on foot); don’t leave the skin behind, as you may find yourself using it, for instance, if you find it necessary to stow the pack in baggage while keeping gear safely at your side
- Roomy pockets in the pack itself for lots of personal stuff, including rain parka, windbreaker, first-aid kit, a change of socks, binoculars, plus padded sleeves for laptop and tablet (provided they’re thin and light enough to be carried comfortably)
- The optional accessory case fit in nice and snug above the medium Core Unit and is ideal for storing small items that could easily get lost or misplaced when stored loosely in the pack – and it comes with a convenient carrying handle, if the need arises
- Designed to be carry-on friendly (but, as always, check with your airline well in advance, especially if regional jets and puddle jumpers are involved – and, again, keep the skin handy in a worst-case scenario)
What I’d Like to See…
- Strap lugs on all the “skins” plus shoulder strap would be nice, so they could do double-duty when you want to leave the backpack at a base camp or back at your hotel and explore with your camera
- Perhaps a 20L size for those of us who often explore in the city or find ourselves confronted with limited carry-on space, or who simply want to travel light