Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. Alaska-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey takes a closer look...
Nature and adventure photography is some of the most amazing photography there is. The glory of what exists in the world, and how we as humans interact with it, is consistently impressive on many levels. But we have to face facts, nature is messy. Outdoor photographers have to battle rain, snow, sleet, mud, rivers, marshes, and every other barrier that is thrown in their way. We at photo.net can’t help you wade chest deep through an icy cold creek or avoid a tropical thunderstorm, but we can help your photography gear get there safely.
This article looks at what is available as far as waterproof/water-resistant camera bags and backpacks. These bags are crucial for outdoor photographers or anyone who has to work in wet dirty environments. They offer a level of protection that regular camera bags can’t offer. That protection comes at a price. Cost, weight, and ease of access are the most common trade-offs. If you can’t keep your camera dry when you are in the middle of a rainstorm, then you aren’t going to get any photos.
Please note: None of these bags are guaranteed to keep your camera dry. There is no bag or case company that will offer you a promise like that. If you are worried and stressed about ruining your gear, you probably shouldn’t be shooting in the kind of conditions that would require a waterproof camera bag.
Water Resistant Zipper
How Waterproof Bags Work
First off, let’s discuss how waterproof camera bags keep gear dry. There are three main systems that these bags use. Two different waterproof zippers and one roll top style. Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Water Resistant Zippers
The easiest to open and close, these zippers have two strips of rubberized fabric that is pressed together when the zipper is closed. They are very water resistant and should easily handle anything short of a torrential downpour. However, they aren’t really “waterproof” no matter what anyone claims. A quick dunking won’t be a problem. But I wouldn’t want to fall in the river with a bag using these zippers.
One Type of Waterproof Zipper
These zippers are a lot tougher and more secure than the water resistant zippers above. They create a much stronger seal due to having two sets of zipper seals (above and below). However, the tradeoff is that they are more difficult to open and close. They also require periodic lubrication with silicone to keep them operating properly. These zippers are the minimum requirement if you need a bag that will survive an actual serious dunking.
Roll Top Bags
There is a reason that whitewater rafters put everything in rolltop drybags. In short, rolltop bags are the best way to keep anything dry if you think it is going to get really wet. Essentially, it’s a tube of fabric (that may or may not ziplock closed at the top). You fill the tube then roll the open end down 4-5 times and then secure it with clips to keep it from unrolling. Short of being punctured or trapped at a great depth, anything in the bag will stay dry. The drawback is that these bags are the least convenient to access. If you are using a roll top bag and see that once in a lifetime shot of Bigfoot, you had better hope that he’s planning to stick around while you fumble and try to open the bag.
Your Waterproof Camera Bag Options
Waterproof camera bags aren’t a terribly high demand item. After all, what kind of fool takes $5000 worth of camera gear into the rainforest or on a fishing trip down class 3 rapids? We have widened our search to include a couple of non photo-industry companies.
How many photographers are not aware of this camera bag company? Well-known for their extensive line of camera bags and backpacks, Lowepro has a reputation for well designed bags that are supportive and easy to carry. Their waterproof series is called “Dryzone” and consists of two backpacks.
Simms is a company that makes fishing gear and accessories for dedicated hard core anglers. Their products are as well regarded as anything in the fishing industry and I can attest to their quality from personal experience. Their waterproof bag line is called “Dry Creek” and encompasses everything from backpacks to lumbar packs to giant duffle bags.
Sagebrush Dry Goods
Sagebrush Dry Goods is a small company based out of Alaska. Owners Robbie and Elaine Garrett started out designing and producing bags for companies like Patagonia and Dan Bailey’s. Later they struck out on their own with a line of tough-as-nails made in the USA bags that are designed to be used by ocean/river kayakers, river rafters, hikers and anyone who travels somewhere very wet. The people at Sagebrush can make just about anything you require in a custom design (at a price), but they also offer a couple of bags designed for camera gear in their production line.
This is Lowepro’s bag for serious photography in serious weather. It comes in either a high visibility black/yellow color scheme or a more subdued black/gray design. The Dryzone 200 carries just about the same amount of gear as their popular Photo Trekker backpack. In real-world terms, this means you should be able to carry 1-2 bodies, 5-6 lenses, and various related accessories. The Dryzone 200 has Lowepro’s curved CollarCut shoulder straps, a padded waistbelt, DryFlo mesh-covered padding and various load adjustment options. The “dry” portion of the pack is made of waterproof plastic coated nylon and the outer pack is made of water-resistant 600D TXP and 2000D ballistic nylon. As with many Lowepro backpacks, there is an integrated tripod carrying system (not waterproof of course) and the shoulder and waist straps have multiple attachment points for adding Lowepro’s SlipLock accessories or various other add-ons. Finally, a bonus for globe-trotting nature photographers is that the Dryzone 200 is “carry-on” sized for most major airlines.
This bag will hold a lot of gear. If you need to be in a rainforest shooting photos of the endangered five legged lizard of Quetzlzacatenango and have to have a whole pile of gear with you, this is the bag you want. Seriously though, the Dryzone 200 is a waterproof version of the Lowepro Nature Trekker or Photo Trekker that many of us have been using for years. All of the typical high-quality Lowepro design innovations are there. With it’s multiple adjustment options for the well padded shoulder straps and waist suspension, there is no doubt that the Dryzone 200 has to be the most comfortable way to carry 30 pounds of gear and keep it dry.
One of the coolest things about the Lowepro Dryzone bags is that they float, even when loaded with gear. Between the foam used in the bag construction and the air trapped by the sealing of the zipper, you can pack the Dryzone 200 full of gear and not have to worry about watching it sink to the bottom of your favorite alpine lake. While accessing your gear is always going to be a little tougher with a waterproof bag than with a regular bag (due to the zippers or rolltop) you really do not notice this with the Dryzone 200. Why? Mostly because of the way photo backpacks are designed and used. Aside from circus contortionists, very few people can access gear from a backpack with a vertical opening such as a this one without taking it off and setting it down. Once you have the bag off, the zipper is easy enough to open and close assuming you have kept it properly lubricated. The Dryzone 200 has an external “flap” that covers the top of the bag and clips closed with a clip. Lowepro claims that in “less extreme” conditions you can close the internal zipper, clip the flap, and leave the external waterproof zipper undone. While it’s always nice to have options, I’m not sure how good of an idea this is. Getting wet unexpectedly or forgetting to reseal the bag when returning to wet conditions would really make you regret the decision to leave the waterproof zipper open.
There is also a smaller Dryzone 100 in the LowePro line that wasn’t tested for this article. It appears to be about the same size as the Lowepro Mini Trekker. The Dryzone 100 has many of the same features as the Dryzone 200, but is missing some of the more advanced shoulder strap adjustment capabilities and does not have the nice padded waist belt.
The Dryzone Rover is the kind of bag that many different photographers will find useful. It will hold enough gear to get some serious photography done in the wilderness but also would make a great super-tough traveling camera bag for that trek through Europe. It has enough space to function as a perfectly useable daypack along with carrying your camera, but seals up tight enough that you could lash it to the outside of a river raft for a trip through the grand canyon. In addition, the Dryzone Rover is the first camera backpack to integrate a hydration pouch into its design. Given how popular hydration pouches are with hikers these days, this is a pretty cool innovation.
The pack is split into two sections. The lower section is the sealed waterproof part. The upper section is a non-waterproof daypack with the aforementioned hydration bladder in it’s own mesh pocket. The padded camera section is actually a fully removable zip-closed case. This feature gives you the option to pull it completely out and use the Rover as nothing but hiking pack with the advantage of a waterproof design. The lower camera section can hold one body, 3-4 lenses, and various accessories. Like the Dryzone 200, the Rover comes in either a high visibility black/yellow color scheme or a more subdued black/gray design. Also like the Dryzone 200, the Rover has anatomically correct shoulder straps and a comfortable waist belt, though the Rover does lack some of the 200’s strap adjustment options. The standard Lowepro backpack integrated tripod carrying system is included on this pack as are various pockets and storage spots. The Dryzone Rover has a “designed for digital” tag applied to it by Lowepro. But all that really means in this case is that the pack has a couple of memory card specific pockets. Nice, but not exactly groundbreaking.
This is really a well designed bag in almost every way. It is comfortable to carry, even loaded down. It isn’t too bulky when doing active outdoor activities, I was able to both rock climb and flyfish wearing the pack with little hindrance. While the design of the bag makes you think that you might be able to sling the Rover off of one shoulder and access the camera section without taking the pack off, in practice this doesn’t work very well. In addition to the fact that the waterproof zipper is tough to open, the design of the Rover is such that if you have slung it around one shoulder and are trying to open it, the bag is likely sideways. So even if you could easily access it, you would be taking a big risk of your gear falling out. If you really feel the need for a pack that will let you access your camera without taking it off, you should look at the Lowepro “Slingshot” line.
Now, a few words about the hydration pouch. Lowepro included their own hydration pouch with the Dryzone Rover rather than licensing one from Camelback or Platyus. Completely understandable as it was likely much cheaper this way, and in one sense, including a hydration pouch is a bonus for the user who then doesn’t need to go out and buy one. But the fact remains that the hydration pouch they included, while functional, just isn’t that good. It has a hose that is longer than it needs to be, a hose clip that doesn’t work, and a bizarre filling method that is far more difficult than it needs to be. Overall, I am inclined to tell people to just drop $20 on a replacement pouch/tube from one of the other hydration companies. That having been said, the Lowepro pouch DOES work. If you don’t feel like spending another $20 after you have paid for the Dryzone Rover, it’s not like you are going to be left to die of dehydration because of it.
Overall, this bag is what a lot of people are looking for when they want a waterproof backpack. Only the most hardcore nature photographers will need to carry the amount of gear that the Dryzone 200 can carry. Most of the rest of us just want to combine two of our passions, being outdoors and making photographs. The Dryzone Rover allows you to do that in almost any weather or location without worrying about your gear getting wet. Plus it’s got plenty of room for a towel to dry you off after you fall out of the raft. Highly recommended for the average outdoor enthusiast/photographer.
The Simms Dry Creek Camera Bag is a small, but well constructed padded bag that will hold a compact camera. Polyurethane coated nylon, RF welded seams, and a roll top closure with an integrated zip-lock seal give this bag it’s waterproof ability. Inside you will find a single padded compartment (removable) that will hold cameras from pocket point & shoot up to medium “prosumer” models (my Canon G6 will fit). The Dry Creek Camera Bag is designed to be carried on a belt or strapped to a pack. To this end, it has a belt/strap loop on the back.
If what you want to carry is a small camera, this is the bag for you. It’s roll-top/zip-lock design make the Dry Creek Camera Bag likely the most waterproof bag in this article. Closed correctly, there should be virtually zero chance of your camera getting wet. The bag easily straps to a belt or the outside of a hiking pack. Simms bills the Dry Creek Camera Bag as being “accessible with one hand”, and this is true. You can easily get the bag open with one hand and get your camera out. Just don’t think you can seal it back up again with one hand. As I mentioned previously, roll-top bags are very waterproof. But you trade convenience for that security. It takes two hands to properly seal and close this (or any roll-top) bag.
The only real drawback to this bag is it’s size. It’s pretty small. A point and shoot or compact prosumer camera will fit very well and be snugly protected by the foam padding. But there is no way you are ever going to get a larger camera in the padded pocket. If you wanted to, you could remove the padded pocket and fit a slightly larger camera in the bag, perhaps even to the size of a compact DSLR with a small prime lens. But you would lose the protection of the padding, and to be honest, hauling around a DSLR is not what this bag is designed for. Overall, an excellent bag if you just need to bring a small camera along on your adventures. Highly recommended if it fits your needs.
Simms Dry Creek Chest/Hip Pack & Roll-Top Lumbar Pack
Despite their names the Simms Dry Creek Chest/Hip Pack and the Roll-Top Lumbar Pack are essentially the same bag with different closure methods. They both are constructed with the polyurethane coated nylon and RF welded seams, they both have a lightly padded, but comfortable waist belt and they are both more-or-less the same size. The difference is that the Chest/Hip Pack uses a water resistant zipper closure and the Roll-Top Lumbar Pack uses (surprise) a roll-top closure. They both have water resistant accessory pockets on the outside, the Chest/Hip has one small and one large pocket the Roll-Top just has one small one, and both bags have four elastic-edged internal accessory pockets on the inside. The Chest/Hip pack is billed as such because it includes a strap that allows you to clip it on and change from a waist pack to a chest pack. The Lumbar pack has the exact same clips, it just doesn’t include the strap to make the conversion. Though I am sure you could find one if you wanted. In any case, I would not want to carry any amount of camera gear for a long distance in a chest pack. Though it might be handy if you had to fjord a waist-deep river and wanted to get your camera up a little higher to prevent a long dunking.
The differences between the two packs come down to the waterproofing ability of the different closures. The Drycreek Chest/Hip Pack has a resistant zipper for it’s main compartment. These zippers do a good job of shedding rain and splashes. But if you think you are going to be in wetter conditions than that, you might want to consider a different pack. The Roll-Top Lumbar Pack, as the name implies, has a roll top closure. This is different from the roll-top on the Simms Dry Creek Camera Bag as the Lumbar Pack does not have an internal zip-lock seal and it clips on the sides rather than together in the center. However, This design is still very good at keeping things dry. As I mentioned previously, whitewater rafters and kayakers have been using roll-top bags (with and without zip-top type seals) for years to keep their gear dry. Both bags have water resistant zippers for their external accessory pockets.
It is important to note that since these are not specifically camera bags, neither of them come with foam inserts. However, a Domke insert such as this one should solve that problem quite nicely (though you should verify measurements for fit before buying). Both the Chest/Hip and Lumbar Packs are large enough to hold a DSLR/lens and a 2nd lens, within reasonable limits. If you are looking to carry your Canon 5D, your 24-70/2.8, and your 70-200/2.8, this isn’t the bag for you. But a Canon XTi, a 18-55/2.8, and a 15/2.8 fit just fine.
Simms Rolltop Lumbar Pack
Both the bags have a supportive, though lightly padded, waist belt. They are comfortable to wear and are reasonable stable even when loaded. Though users should not expect the same level of support and stability that more technical lumbar packs provide. These packs are meant to be waterproof, not go on an expedition across. That having been said, I can’t imagine anyone complaining about the waist belts on these bags. They are simple but effective.
As could be predicted, the Roll-Top Pack is more difficult to access than the Chest/Hip Pack. That isn’t to say it is hard to access, but it’s more work than just unzipping the pack. In comparison, the Chest/Hip Pack is easy to access. The water-resistant zippers open and close almost as easily as a normal (non-waterproof) zipper. The internal pockets are great for small items and the external ones fit a number of larger gadgets. Though given that they use the water-resistant zippers, I wouldn’t put anything in there that you were paranoid about getting wet. Despite the fact that these are not camera-specific bags, they work very well for a small kit once you find the correct insert to pad your gear.
The Sagebrush Dry Goods Cam-Dry Camera Bag is a very basic waterproof camera bag. Coming in two sizes, the Medium size is perfect for a small DSLR and lens and the Large size will hold a larger DSLR and up to a mid sized 2.8 zoom. You would have a hard time fitting a 70-200/2.8 inside of either. A nice option is that the Large size comes in either a vertical or horizontal orintation. The Cam-Dry bag seals with a fully waterproof zipper just like the LowePro bags use. The inside of the bag is lined with removable 1/2 inch closed cell foam padding. The provides plenty of protection for the average user. However, there are no dividers inside the bag. So fitting in a few primes and a small body would require some modification or individual cases for the lenses to ensure that everything didn’t bang around. While there are no dividers or other internal pockets, there is one mesh velcro close pouch on the outside for items that don’t mind getting wet.
The Sagebrush Cam-Dry bag comes with a grab-handle on top (a feature more bags should have) and a very simple shoulder strap, both are removable. The bag also has well sized loops on the back that will allow it to be strapped to most anything. This gives the bag a lot of versatility. It could be a waistpack, a boat bag, lashed to the side of a camping pack or motorcycle luggage, or even the deck of a paddleboard.
The first thing I would do is to replace the shoulder strap (if someone wanted to use it as a shoulderbag). The strap is unpadded and fairly useless as an actual shoulder strap. But it is easily replaced and shouldn’t be considered as a knock against the bag. The foam inside protects a camera very well. But due to the lack of dividers, if I were going to use the bag in a situation where it would bounce around a lot. I might stuff a hat or old shirt in there as well just to keep things from bouncing. As I have said before, the waterproof zippers are tougher than normal zippers to open and close. But Sagebrush has thoughtfully added t-handles on either end of the zipper. This allows you to pull against them when opening or closing and improves handling considerably.
As I said before, this is a basic bag. But that is also it’s biggest advantage. It is built nails-tough, has a lot of different options for use, and provides excellent protection. You aren’t going to take a National Geographic expedition’s worth of gear in this bag. But it is a perfect bag for someone who wants to bring a DSLR and lens
combo along on adventures and not worry about it getting wet.
The Sagebrush Dry Goods Hip & Deck Pack is one of the most interesting bags in this article. It is designed with a very comfortable and supportive lumbar waistbelt. But it also has the stability of a single shoulder strap. This allows it to be almost as stable when moving as a full backpack, but also much easier to access. The Hip & Deck Pack comes in two sizes Medium & Large. The Medium is what I have for this review and it is plenty big enough to hold a body plus a couple of lenses. A 70-200 would easily fit in the bag and larger lenses would likely fit as well. The Large version ads a few inches to the overall height, but does not change any other dimensions.
Using the same waterproof zipper as the Cam-Dry bag above, the Hip & Deck Pack has the same t-bar handles to assist with zipper closure and also the grab strap at the top. There is a hanging internal pocket that is great for keys or cellphones (keeps them dry but away from camera gear). In addition, there is an external water resistant zipper pocket that would be a great size for energy bars or other quick-access items. Unlike the Cam-Dry bag, the Hip & Deck Pack has a standard “camera” style foam insert with two movable velcro dividers. This allows for carrying multiple lenses or accessories just as you would in a standard camera bag.
The combo of shoulder and waistbelt makes this a great pack to wear. Even loaded down, it is comfortable and doesn’t drag on any part of your body. One nice thing is that you can unhook the the waistbelt and swing the bag around via the shoulder strap and access your gear without setting the bag down. It isn’t quite as easy as getting into gear from a standard shoulder bag. But it is much easier than accessing gear from a backpack. The shoulderstrap itself is decent enough, it is padded and has a non-slip fabric on the underside. While this is helpful when wearing the bag, it does tend to grab at your clothes if you are trying to swing the bag around as described above. You could replace the strap if this was important to you. But an easier solution is to just flip the strap pad upside-down so that the non-grippy side is against your clothes.
The Sagebrush Dry Goods Hip & Deck Pack’s padded insert works great, with one caveat. The bag itself is 12” high (14” for the Large version), but the insert is only 6-7 inches high. The advantage to this is that large lenses can still fit in easily. The disadvantage is that smaller items can end up bouncing around in the pack if you are doing any sort of vigorous movement. For me, this was a minor issue. One of the great aspects about this pack is that there is room for a sweatshirt or jacket on top of your camera gear. I typically load my gear in and then toss a sweatshirt on top of it. I have an extra layer if I need it when hiking or fishing and my lenses stay in the insert. If you have tall lenses or don’t wish to carry an extra piece of clothing. It would be an easy modification to create a set of straps for the insert to keep things in their divider sections.
Overall, this is a great bag and one that I have used many times on recent fishing and hiking adventures. I would recommend it to anyone wanting a not too bulky pack that carries enough gear for serious photography while still allowing ease of movement for active adventures.
A note about Sagebrush Dry Goods
First off, let me say that both Lowepro and Simms are great companies that make well designed products. I have a closet full of Lowepro bags and Simms fishing/outdoors gear. You can’t go wrong purchasing from either one of them.
But I would like to take a moment to recognize Sagebrush Dry Goods for the rare bird that it is. A small company that still makes everything itself in it’s own local factory. Sure, we could get into the discussion of USA made products versus outsourcing production to other countries and what the means for economies and so on. But what I want to discuss is a far more practical matter for most photographers. The fact that Sagebrush makes all of it’s own products right there in it’s remote Kake, Alaska facility gives customers a lot of options they wouldn’t have had otherwise.
For example, say that you were a photographer for a hunting magazine and decided that it was crucial that you have a blaze-orange bag in order to ensure your visibility while out in the field. Lowepro might want to help you, but there is no way that they can make such a thing happen. With a company like Sagebrush Dry Goods, one phone call will put you in touch with someone who can help you out. And as long as blaze orange waterproof material exists, I’m sure they would be happy to build you that exact bag. Now, that’s a pretty far-fetched example. But it is worth considering the options that in-house construction gives you. Color, size, dividers, zippers, etc. I’ve met Sagebrush owners Robbie and Elaine Garrett, and they are nice people who are very interested in making their products preform the best they can. I have no doubt that you would find a receptive ear if you had “just a little modification” that you wanted to have made on one of their bags.
Conclusion (or “So what should I buy?”)
Unlike many comparison articles, there is no “best choice” out of these products. They are all good bags from good companies. What is going to be best for you depends on what your needs are. For example:
I want to take a small p&s or prosumer camera with me. – Then you want the Simms Dry Creek Camera Bag.
I want to take enough gear for a location shoot under a waterfall. – You need the Lowepro Dryzone 200 (perhaps more than one)
I want to take a DSLR and a single lens along on a cross country motorcycle trip. – The Sagebrush Dry Goods Cam-Dry bag is the one for you.
I want to take a DSLR, a couple lenses/accessories, and lunch on a rainy 10 mile hike. – The Lowepro Dryzone Rover will perform perfectly.
I want to take a DSLR and an extra lens out into the rainforest (or up to the ski hill). – Rainforest = Simms Dry Creek Roll-Top Lumbar Pack. Ski resort = Simms Dry Creek Chest/Hip Pack.
I want to take a DSLR and a couple lenses/accessories out wading through the river while I fish. – Sagebrush Dry Goods Hip & Deck Pack.
You see what I’m getting at here? Of course those are all somewhat tongue in cheek “needs”. But the fact of the matter is that from the bags in this article, most every photographer should be able to solve their “waterproof bag” needs. And hey, like I said, if you can’t solve them from this list you should give Sagebrush a call and see if they can make you something custom.
For whatever it is worth, here are my personal favorites:
Simms Dry Creek Camera Bag – I use it to take a Canon SD300 or a Canon G6 out with me when I’m traveling light but think I might get wet.
Lowepro Dryzone Rover – Great for day trips out here in the Pacific Northwest. Enough room for lunch, jacket, GPS, etc. But still holds a nice amount of gear and keeps it all dry if the rain hits.
Sagebrush Dry Goods Hip & Deck Pack – As far as I am concerned, this is the perfect pack for me to take a DSLR out flyfishing. I can take enough gear that I feel like I can get serious photography done (plus stash a jacket). But it also lets me move easily and not worry about getting my gear wet because I waded to far out in the river.