It's a full travel list for sure, as opposed to the amount of equipment you'd normally be carrying on a day trip. The point of this round-up review is to figure out what each of these backpacks is best at. The only way to do that is to load each of them to capacity and use them on real photography trips. There cannot be a single winner that fits all needs (and backs, hips and shoulders). But at the very least, after reading the reviews, you'll be able to narrow the field with respect to the price, features and functionality that fit your budget and photography needs. Here you go.
The National Geographic Earth Explorer bags, Medium US$210.00, Large US$400.00, are deceptively nice, but unfortunately prove to be less than practical in actual use. The inner cinch protecting the top compartment provides additional protection against moisture, but can also be annoying because it gets in the way of fast access. The flanges on your hot shoe can accidentally pickup the edge of the cinch seam as you're lifting the camera out of the bag. The mid/central compartment retainer zipper works smoothly, but the tab doesn't have enough weight and can be difficult to grab when you're wearing light gloves. Although the soft 'frame' of the pack is well-designed, providing acceptable balance and form, I think the bag is a still bit too soft for backpack use. Loads can shift too easily when you're on steep inclines. A tripod can be lashed to the exterior accessory side mounts at the cost of unbalancing the pack. The Earth Explorer doesn't offer enough bump & bang protection or bottom protection to make me stop worrying about my gear. It does offer almost a dozen exterior pockets and a dozen clinch and accessory mounting points for lashing on extra gear and bags. The built in bottle bag is a nice touch.
Because the belting is narrow, it's also difficult to lash the bag tightly enough to your waist in order to get it positioned for your hips to take the load, something that's absolutely necessary for proper/ergonomic and comfortable backpack use. The 15" laptop compartment is positioned lower than it is in the Lowepro so there's little chance of any dangerous flex. The rain cover is a bit fiddly to get in and out of its pouch on the pack. The National Geographic offers a lot of storage versatility but for hiking and general travel use should be restricted to no more than an hour at a time on your back. No dedicated memory card compartment. I own and really like the National Geographic small and medium shoulder bags. They're great for daily use in and out of the car and for short photography outings. The National Geographic small and medium shoulder bags seem to wear extremely well, but the jury is still out on how well the treated canvas/synthetic exterior and rip-stop synthetic liner will hold up over long use in the backpack configuration. The shoulder straps, back protection and breathability are good. However, we did notice some permanent compression of the padding in the high stress areas of the shoulder straps. The carry design allows your back to breath reasonably well. We could not fit all of our test gear into the Medium backpack. It's softer-than-average outer construction is unlikely to do a good job of protecting your gear in an aircraft overhead bin. The Medium backpack is okay on commercial aircraft but the Large backpack is too big for most international airline carry-on restrictions, which severely limits travel use of this pack. Construction and finish are good.
The Tamrac Adventure 9 backpack, US$140.00, is clearly the bargain of this bunch. It carries marginally well, distributes weight across the shoulders with a sternum strap (which I personally hate because it restricts breathing) rather than a waist belt, and could use a bit more padding everywhere. However, there's no doubt that the Adventure 9 does a very good job of protecting your gear as well as the Crumpler Keystone and the Lowepro CompuTrekker Plus AW. So call the Tamrac Adventure 9 a large capacity day pack. We managed to fit all the gear on the list into the Adventure 9, but the design of the compartments are not particularly well-optimized. Storing and removing the D200 with attached 17-55mm f2.8 lens always required an extra twist or two to pull it free or get back in past the upper curve of the zipper facing. It's something you'll get used to I'm sure, but it's initially annoying.
The shoulder straps, back protection and breathability are good. To get the best use out of the Tamrac Adventure 9 you've got to focus on good posture because there is insufficient stiffness to the soft 'frame' of this backpack. The shoulder straps are well designed and although not quite as heavily padded as the rest of this group, seem to do a good job of keeping pressure and stress points to a minimum. The 15" laptop compartment is unwisely located against your back, which means the lack of a waist belt/hip weight distribution often results in a lot of bounce and flex to the laptop compartment. That's not good. There are lots of dedicated compartments inside as well a dedicated memory card storage compartment and card usage system. One of the exterior mesh compartments is large enough for a water bottle. Like Lowepro, Tamrac offers a large selection of strap/velcro mount exterior bags and attachments. The Tamrac Adventure 9 is legal size for all international carry-on airline travel - just. Construction and finish are good.
The Crumpler Keystone bag, US$200.00, is great . . . for a while. Then the annoyingly wide zipper facings which prevent the top compartment from being accessed easily will become tiresome. In use, my Crumpler bags (I've got this backpack and the 4, 6 & 7 Million Dollar Home models) offer better protection overall than the National Geographic bags. The Keystone is still not great for fast access off the shoulder or even on the ground. Crumpler compartments are invariably tight and this model is no exception. Your gear won't shift around (which is good), but some of it will be a bit more difficult to get to. This bag carries well and secures to your waist quite well also, which makes it a much better carry than the National Geographic bags. A laptop is well protected in this pack because its the only design in this group which positions the laptop compartment on the outside of the pack as opposed the to inside against your back. Crumpler deserves an award of some sort for that design decision.
The tripod mounting strap is awkward and can't accommodate heavy tripods. Whichever tripod you do happen to mount is well balanced on the pack. Crumpler's typically clean looking design apparently doesn't accommodate a dedicated memory card storage compartment. The laptop compartment can only handle a 13" laptop.
The shoulder straps, back protection and breathability are quite good although to get the best use out of the Crumpler Keystone you've got to focus on good posture. It's a long backpack which tends to carry flatter to the back than the others in this review, a good design feature that has its limits in terms of storage convenience inside the pack. The pack material is tough and the interior is very gentle on your gear. The pack is supposed to protect contents against heavy weather, but we still advise the use of a rain cover with this pack. The Crumpler Keystone backpack is legal size for all international carry-on airline travel. Construction and finish are very good.
The Kata R-103 GDC Rucksack, US$260.00, is a heavy duty but lightweight backpack which clearly represents the best protection available. Compartments are slightly smaller and stiffer than those found on any of the other bags in this review. The bright yellow trademark Kata lining makes it easy to spot small items in any of the compartments. Kata builds its bags out of waterproof and storm proof material. Digital Imaging Products Editor Mario Georgiou and I were caught on the side of a hill leading to Glastonbury Tor on a photography trip in England last September and Mario's Kata T-214 Torso Pack kept his gear dry as a bone. So did my Lowepro Elite Pro AW (with the added help of the built in rain cover however). The R-103 carries extremely well, a legacy of Kata's experience designing and manufacturing military gear no doubt. Weight distribution is excellent and easy to balance. A 15" laptop is well protected with no danger of flex damage for most people. We managed to just fit all of the gear into the pack - just.
The shoulder straps, back protection and breathability are quite good. The lower shoulder strap padding tends to twist while mounting or dismounting the pack. The shoulder straps and waist belt are well designed using a very durable padding and outer material. The upper yoke between the narrowest part of the shoulder straps extends slightly from the upper pack seam and may bother some people. Tripod strap mounts are located on the bottom of the pack but the tripod strap set is optional. Like Tamrac and Lowepro, Kata offers a large selection of strap/velcro mount exterior bags and attachments. The interior finish is very gentle on your gear. The Kata R-103 GDC Rucksack is legal size for all international carry-on airline travel. Construction and finish are excellent and tied with the Think Tank Airport International for the best quality in this group of products.
The Lowepro CompuTrekker Plus AW, US$220.00, is my personal favorite general travel backpack (car, airplane, train, bus, light to medium hiking). For my purposes it's been wonderfully durable, fully protective of all my gear, comfortable on short and medium length hikes and extremely versatile with respect to not only how much gear I can pack into it, but also with respect to how easy it is to get at everything quickly. This bag is also weatherproof, with the built-in All Weather rain cover almost redundant considering how well the bag itself is designed and waterproofed. Different backs will give different results, but on my back the CompuTrekker Plus AW is a great carry. It secures comfortably around the waist and ensures proper weight distribution on the hips. Getting the right adjustment with a 15" laptop in place however, definitely takes a bit of initial fiddling. Too tight and you could flex the laptop. Too loose and the load won't be properly distributed. You really only need to unfold the rain cover for heavy downpours. This one is strictly for short hikes and general travel.
The shoulder straps, back protection and breathability are quite good. Shoulder strap padding is well designed and positioned to relieve stress as well as the Kata which is the best in the group. The interior finish and velcro dividers are padded a bit thicker than the National Geographic Earth Explorer and similar to but softer than the Kata and Crumpler. The tripod carry straps are fiddly and Lowepro needs to completely revise the strap and cinch design. They loosen too easily and represent more of a hindrance than a help. The pack offers a dedicated memory card storage compartment. Like Kata and Tamrac, Lowepro offers a large selection of strap/velcro mount exterior bags and attachments. The Lowepro CompuTrekker Plus AW is legal size for all international carry-on airline travel. Construction and finish are very good.
The Think Tank Airport International is the only oddball in this group because it's not a backpack and can't be converted into a backpack either. However, for general car, bus, train and air travel, at the end of which you pack daily shooting gear into a smaller sling pack (such as a Kata T-214 or a Lowepro Slingshot 200 or 300) or shoulder bag, there is nothing on the market that can touch the Think Tank Airport International. It's expensive, but what a bag! Like the CompuTrekker Plus AW it easily holds everything on our list. The Think Tank Airport International features its own well designed and trouble free roller wheels and extension handle in order to use the bag as a roller board. The integrated extension handle and wheel assembly work over long distances too, easily eating up 1-2 kilometer treks I've done across cobbled streets in London and potholed roads and sidewalks in Minneapolis. I purchased one of these things the same week that Think Tank originally offered them for sale (18 months ago?) and have logged thousands of air miles with it since. Great stuff. If you're traveling with a lot of photo gear and a laptop up to 17", but not hiking/backpacking, the Think Tank Airport International is a superb choice.
The Think Tank Airport International has every travel protection feature you can think of including a built in security cable, TSA-compliant combination locks, heavy duty everything, high impact resistant frame, high density padded dividers multi-height divider sets so that a laptop can be safely packed on top of your camera and digital gear, extremely strong carry handles on three sides, as well as easy-access exterior compartments for travel documents and other items. The Think Tank Airport International is weatherproof as far as I can tell, but I have not yet actually had the misfortune of being caught with it in a serious downpour or snowstorm. It easily sloughed off light rain showers however and that's a good sign. Construction and finish are excellent.
All of the backpacks can accommodate or are supplied with some sort of strap assembly to carry a tripod. However, doing so puts the outer dimensions of the arrangement beyond the international airline carry-on size restrictions. In most cases tripods with metal legs won't be allowed in the cabin anyway. Carbon fiber tripods usually pass. In any event, the smart move is to pack the tripod in your checked bag.
All of these backpacks shed rain, mud, sand, snow quite well. Nonetheless, in heavy downpours we strongly recommend the use of accessory or built in rain covers. The outer shells are all abrasion and cut resistant. All of the packs clean up quite easily with lukewarm soapy water and a damp sponge.
Before making one of these expensive purchase decisions, bring your own gear to a good photography store and load up some or all of these backpacks. Walk around the store for ten or fifteen minutes. Get the feel of each pack. Be sensitive to pressure and stress points. Repeatedly mount and dismount the pack, open it up and remove and replace gear. Bring your own tripod or monopod and tie it on. Do all this and avoid the stupidity of ending up with a closet full of costly bags and packs you rarely need or use. Our product rating below reflects an average of the following individual ratings: Tamrac Adventure 9 (2 bars), National Geographic Earth Explorer (medium pack 2 bars, large pack 3 bars) Crumpler Keystone (3 bars), Lowepro CompuTrekker Plus AW (4 bars), Kata R-103 GDC Rucksack (4 bars) and the excellent but non-backpack Think Tank Airport International (5 bars).