Having tried photo-backpacks I prefer a standard hiking day pack (panel loading) with a small camera bag insert to house the camera and lens for actual hiking. A couple of reasons, first hiking packs are designed for hiking and seem to ride better on my back, features like rain covers and water bottle holders are included. You can add gear (jackets, lunch, extra socks etc..) easier around the insert. Camera packs seem to take up all the space with that extra padding. Plus a regular hiking pack doesn't jump out to thieves as pawnable gear.
There is a downside, grabbing the camera takes a bit longer and miscellaneous gear mingles so sometimes you have to hunt for the shutter release or the extra battery.
Finally allow me to question placing camera gear on the bottom of a pack. If a water bottle, whine flask, or hydration bladder were to leak it would soak the lenses. Also if it where me I would forget about the gear, being exhausted from climbing up the trail and just haphazardly drop my pack on the ground, personally I would rather a rain jacket be on the bottom to cushion any abrupt landings.
just my thoughts
+1 on using a pack designed for hiking with camera inserts. Many camera-specific packs work ok with weights less than ~12 pounds but become increasingly uncomfortable for higher loads. A key for me is to use the pack together with a cotton carrier. The cotton carrier gives much more rapid access to the camera than any backpack. I am currently using a Kelty fury 35 with inserts for longer hikes with camera + other gear. This pack is carry on legal if you don't overstuff it, and it has an internal frame to transfer weight to your hips. It also has a rain cover. This summer I carried about 25lbs of camera + other gear (60D + 6D + 24-105L + 70-300L + clothes + water + food) on mountain hikes up to 8 hours at Glacier National Park using this pack with a cotton carrier and found the combination to work great. Picture shows the pack at Iceberg Lake at Glacier National Park.
Thanks Jeff and PCM-madison for your inputs towards a normal hiking pack instead of a photo oriented backpack.
I have been using a normal hiking pack for some time now, and a separate bag inside it for my camera gear. But the pack I have is a fair bit larger then what i would want to carry around for my daily or half-day trips, hence why I'm looking for a new one now.
I agree that a hiking pack would be the best option for hiking, but I want to explore and evaluate all the options before I decide. Mainly because sometimes it is a hassle to get into the pack and get out your gear, and I cannot even count how many times I've been unpacking almost all the contents of my pack to get to my camera bag inside. By the way I keep all photography related items in one bag inside my pack so having various items floating around is not an issue for me.
My only previous experience with a photography pack was some sort of Lowepro sling pack many years ago, and it was awful. There isn't any big photo related stores in my area (closest one is 7-8 hour drive away), so if I go with a photography pack it will buy before I try.
Jeff, I understand your point regarding packing the gear in the bottom, and I appreciate you question it. I feel a bit different about the matter (I didn't necessarily mean dead on the bottom of the pack by the way). My water bottles are carried outside the pack (in mesh pockets or similar) for easy access. If I use a hydration bladder it is in a separate compartment towards my back and either inside a waterproof bag or plastic. Also if there is any other liquids carried inside the pack I always double pack it in case of leaks (something I learned my lesson on a couple of years ago, fortunately not related to camera gear). The pack I use now has a small bottom compartment where I keep my jacket or any other clothes I want fast and easy access to, and that have provided the protection I've needed so far. Adding some sort of protection or padding if needed shouldn't be an issue with the new pack. I've carried top-heavy packs before and I do try to avoid that as I find it gets really uncomfortable even after a short period. I will do what I can to pack everything significant of weight low down and close to my back.
PCM-madison, I haven't seen or heard about the cotton carrier until I read your comment today. I will have to look into what that actually is.
I have the Guru and have used it for over 2 years. I have used it at airshows, travel and day outings. I would usually carry my 1Dx, 35mm 1.4, 85mm 1.2 and 50mm 1.2 in the small pro icu. I have found the f-stop bags to be some of the best dedicated camera bags available. When I was searching it was the only one that really met my needs at the time for a small kit and additional travel items. The Guru is the size of a normal backpack and I personally wouldn't want to go smaller than that.
I do not use the hip belt often and usually just fold it behind me and it has never uncomfortable. Most bags do not have a hip belt that can be removed and it would likely negatively impact how effective the hip belt is when it is in use. With the amount of additional items you would like to be able to carry I would not recommend a smaller bag. It seems that the Guru would be fairly well packed and would meet your needs.
I can't really recommend another bag since the Guru has worked so well for me and it was the one I chose after reading a number of reviews. I have been favoring the Loka UL recently for the additional storage but I still use the Guru when I want to keep it simple. Good luck finding the right bag for you and let us know what you decide on.
jman, thank you for the insight on the Guru. My main issue is that all the reference I have on it is online. There is no way I can see it in person or try it on prior to purchasing, so your input is well appreciated.
I will be going to check out some hiking packs this weekend at local stores to find exactly what size I am after. Maybe the Guru is the right size for me, but I don't know until I've had tried some similar capacity packs for comparison.
*Edit: Forgot to mention one thing regarding the removable hip belt. The pack I have now has a removable belt, and it is quite convenient for whenever you go light. Mine doesn't have any instability due to this as it is perfectly secure once attached
So, to summarize a bit. Not sure whether I will go for a dedicated hiking pack with a photo bag inside again, or if I will choose something like the F-Stop Guru. Will go take a look at hiking packs at my local store this weekend to get a better idea of the size I'm after.
Are there any other viable photo related packs other then the ones F-Stop makes?
Also, if anyone know of 25-30L hiking packs that have solutions to access bottom content without emptying the pack (side or back access) I would highly appreciate it.