Tomtom tweedel, bangkok images    Tweedel is a good friend with significant experience in China and has self-published several interesting volumes of his travels in China complete with many great images and informative narrative.  Last year he visited Thailand for the first time and I had a great time showing him around the area.  Somehow he found time to put together a like 340 page book of his travels around Thailand and you can get your copy here!  I've got a copy of this book and I can tell you it's well worth it, especially for first time travelers or if you haven't seen more of Thailand than downtown Bangkok.

When Tom agreed to become part of our small select product review team I was both excited and grateful.  I hope you enjoy this and future reviews by Tom.  For those whose plans include extended travel in Thailand and China I’d recommend contacting Tom and inquiring into obtaining copies of his books.  Tom Tweedel is an Austin, TX based photographer and can be reached at: tomsds@austin.rr.com

 

Mountain Smith review

 

Mountain Smith Tour Lumbar Pack

From time to time I get asked about what’s the best way to carry gear when travelling through Asia. There is no single best solution or perfect setup for everyone.  It depends on so many things like where you are going, what you are taking, how you are getting there, what type of shooting you want to do etc.  But most of all it depends on YOU, your style and how much effort you're willing to expend to get what you want.   I’ve known guys who took some serious gear on a trip and ended up leaving it in the hotel room and using their pocket camera for 90% of their shots because it was easy.  Be real about what your willing lug around and take the trouble to use and decisions become much easier.

 

Lumbar Tour Pack used in Bangkok Thailand

Camera Bag

In my different trips to China (and around the US) I went through many generations of equipment.  Everything from military surplus backpacks to high fashion Eagle Creek travel stuff.  Some worked pretty well, some not so well.  Generally I carried to much so I focused on what I used, what I didn’t and what was really important.  From that I came up with a list of must haves and nice to haves.  When it all came down my camera bag of choice for just about all occasions is not actually a camera bag.  It’s the Mountainsmith Tour Lumbar pack.

It is widely available at many outdoor stores or online.

 

Overview

The Tour is a Lumbar pack which means it is primarily meant to be worn around the waist on the small of your back.  However the size of this bag makes it versatile enough to mount up front or even sling like a bag.

The main compartment is both big enough and properly shaped to handle most of my main gear for an outing.  It can hold an SLR, 2 lenses and a flash.  It doesn’t give you absolute instant access like a compartmentalized lens bag would but its fast enough to swap things out you need to.  It has an organizer pocket inside the main bag that can be used to store knickknacks like batteries and lens clothes.  The padding of the main compartment is adequate for knocks and scrapes but you wouldn’t want to trust it to take a full fall.

In front of the main compartment is a secondary compartment good for putting a filter wallet or other larger (usually flat) accessories.

On the back there is pocket between the lumbar padding and the bag.  This is useful for storing things like hand towels, a small book or smaller fragile objects.  On the sides are two mesh pockets which have a variety of uses.  On the front there is elastic webbing for stashing a jacket and several mounting points across the bag to attach things to. There are multiple adjustment straps to fit the bag to a variety of users and loads.

The build quality is excellent with most of the wear points being reinforced and double stitched.  Its reasonably water resistant (as much as most daypacks). All the zippers have rubber ends on them.

 

MountainSmith Lumbar Pack

 

Use

I settled on the lumbar pack (vs. many other packs) for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost it is comfortable.  I am able to carry an acceptable amount of gear in relative comfort.  Having it on my lower back, or slug like a bag reduces the amount of surface area that is stuck to my body.  This allows for extra ventilation which is very nice for long term comfort when trudging through the tropics of Southeast Asia or the heat of Texas summers.

The size was “just right”.  It can carry an outings worth of gear without much wasted space or weight.  Because its not too big its easy to reach around and get things in and out of (vs. a backpack which typically has to be unslung to access).  This size (or lack of) is a huge asset on crowded Asian streets.  You can shift it to the side of your hip and maintain a lower cross section when working through the crowds.

 

Mountainsmith lumbar pack with shown with shoulder straps

 

Being reasonably water resistant it’s where I’ll stash my gear if things start getting too wet.  I also make a point to bring a plastic bag along in case the rains get really out of hand.

The Mesh pockets on the side are absolutely wonderful to have.  When visiting the tropics I go through a lot of water.  I used to worry about carrying enough water to last me the day (which was heavy).  I discovered that bottled water or other suitable drinks are ubiquitously available everywhere for reasonable prices (nothing like getting to the top of a mountain and having some kid waiting there with an ice cold one for $.50).  So you buy a bottle or two, maybe mix one up with some powdered drink mix and toss them in the side pockets.  They are in easy reach and don’t get anything else wet if they condense or spill.  The pockets expand enough to hold 2 full sized Gatorade bottles each if needed.

The belt is wide with combination of nylon straps and webbing.  It clicks together with a large plastic buckle (make sure you hear it click, I’ve had it not a few times and almost had a disaster).  It works best to loosen it up a bit, click it and then tighten it up to your level of comfort.  There are two mounting points on the belt as well as the stabilizer straps.  I clip a couple of carabineers to the mounting points.  These serve as quick attach mounting points to hold things.  Very useful when the wife does a little too much shopping and you have to carry back.  Just hook the bag to the clip and go on. I also mounted a small nylon case that can hold a pocket camera or a cell phone.

The stabilizer straps are very useful for cinching everything down to prevent it from shifting or flopping around if you have to put some speed on.  They are easy to tighten or loosen as needed when your load shifts form switching out gear/lenses.  They also help keep the internal contents from knocking around each other too much.

In addition to the regular strap that comes with the bag there is the option for some “suspender” type backpack straps. If you plan on carrying heavy, dense loads they do provide some utility but I prefer to not to use them for several reasons. Primarily because they slow down and complicate access to the pack and reduces its flexibility. It’s not so easy to just rotate it around to access stuff. Also the straps (like any) compress your clothing against your body, cuts down on cooling air in hot climates. This is counter to one of the big appeals of this pack. Finally it’s really a case of the right tool for the job.  If you have this pack loaded down so heavy that you need straps to support the weight the chances are you really should be using a small backpack or something larger that will give you easier access to your stuff.

 

Mountainsmith Shoulder Straps

 

The one condition that I have found the straps useful for is if you’re going through rough wilderness terrain. Not so much because they allow you extra weight but because the straps give you an extra measure of stability to keep the weight from shifting and bouncing. This can be desirable if you’re climbing or running through terrain that requires good balance. But for general use I found the included strap slung around the shoulder provides adequate support and stability if more is needed.

The there are two small top handles on top of the bag which makes it easy to hand carry.  But more importantly there is a very good and very useful shoulder strap.

When you have the bag heavily loaded putting it on your waist can be tricky since it sags a bit.  Trying to get it on the right spot and clicked up can be challenging.  But the strap makes it easy.  Slip the strap over one shoulder to take up the weight and slack, snap the belt, tighten it up and slide the strap off and your ready to go.

Also when you access stuff the strap is great, if you’re under load the main body of the unit is under compression (keeps it tight and stable) but this can make it hard to pull things out.  Slip up the strap, take off the load and unsnap the belt and it’s easy to go fishing.  When you need to run fast sometimes the bag can flop up and down making it uncomfortable, just bring the strap up and take some weight off and you can run without a problem.
Or you can just use the strap and stow the waist belt (it slides in underneath the lumbar support) and use it as a bag.  The strap pad is quite good.
If straps are not your thing you can detach it and just go with the pack.  I was worried at first the strap might get in the way but I've never had problems and it’s always there when I need it.

One kind of unspoken advantage the bag has over a traditional camera bag is it is somewhat less conspicuous to would be thieves since it doesn’t have “I’m a camera bag” log emblazoned on it.  I suspect it would stand up to cutpurses and pickpockets as well as any other daypack (which is to say not great).  If your milling about the train station or other place with lots of shifty characters it’s probably best to rotate it around front to keep an eye on things.  If your not loaded down too much you can even stuff all your camera gear in the bag to downgrade your attractiveness to desperate people as it just looks like another pack (all of which cost more than they make in a month).

Its use doesn’t end with the trip either.  It’s got plenty of uses around town or on a day hike.  Especially if you have kids.  The mesh pockets are perfect for sippy cups or drink bottles and wet or soiled clothing.  You can strap abandoned clothing to the outside and carry snacks, first aid kits, flashlights, small toys, diaper changes, napkins or anything else in there.  It holds it comfortably and securely.  If your kids are toddlers it can make a dandy kid sling by using the shoulder strap and having them “sit” on it when you have to carry them long distances.

The bag is not perfect, there are a few flaws.  Being a lumbar pack it cannot comfortably support as much weight as a backpack.  So you’ve got to figure out how much weight is comfortable for you and then pay attention not to exceed it.

Access to things is not as quick and convenient as a good (but wide) dedicated camera bag. You’ll probably have to do some shifting and digging. That’s the price you pay for a smaller package. Sometimes you have to loosen the stabilizer straps.

You also have to be careful when bucking or unbuckling the main clip. If you’ve got a heavy load it can shift and slip out of your fingers. When snapping it make sure both sides of the buckle snap. I found its best to throw the strap over your shoulder and lift it up taking the weight of the bag on your shoulder while snapping or unsnapping it. It’s easy to do once you get the strap length right.

 

Mountainsmith Lumbar pack

 

Its also not especially fashionable outside certain circles (most of which are not in Asia).  But chances are if you’re a white person with a big camera in your hands their going to know you’re a tourist anyway and you have to suffer all that being a tourist entails (touts, jacked up prices, rip off scams and other “solicitations”).  If you're hanging with a more affluent crowd this probably isn’t going to be your first choice of a bag, but then you're probably not bringing the heavy photographic artillery either.

The bag is available in a variety of colors.  The first one I got was black but I returned it because all the pockets and zippers and straps just blended together too well and I found myself having to look for things.  Not to mention all those small photographic accessories are black and end up in a black bag.  I returned it and got a red one which stands out a bit more and is easy to use.  The interior is yellow which makes it easy to spot that small black piece of plastic you are digging for.

 

green Mountainsmith Lumbar Pack used in photography workshop, Bangkok Images

 

Conclusion

If your successful in keeping your kit down and looking for a versatile go everywhere, do everything bag this is an excellent choice. Its can handle everything you need for an outing or a small photo job. Its not perfect but for what I do and what I want it’s the best I’ve found so far.