A camera bag can really make or break your work. I'm one of those people who is terrible at packing light, so when it comes to carrying 50 pounds of gear, I want a bag to be well organized, comfortable, ergonomic, and durable, because I pretty much place my studio on my back. Enter the Mountainsmith Borealis.
I've really gotten into ultra-short trips lately. I find a cheap flight or a drivable place, take a single carry-on, and am gone for 24-48 hours, taking only a change of clothes and camera gear and just getting lost. Thus, a bag like the Mountainsmith Borealis really appeals to me. At 22" x 13" x 9.5", it's right at the maximum carry-on size, and its multi-use design means it can take on a lot more than just camera gear.
The Borealis is certainly more utilitarian than chic, but that's the look I prefer anyway. If I'm going to be the geek with all that gear and a computer on my back, I want to look the part. That being said, it's a classy utilitarian look. The exterior is a mildly shiny dark blue-green with yellow and gray accents; it's interesting without being gaudy.
The exterior is water resistant and also features a removable rain cover stowed in the bottom of the bag that also acts as some extra padding. The bag is very well sealed, and I would not hesitate to take it out in a normal rainstorm. The straps are nicely padded and coated with a breathable mesh. They have just the right amount of give to avoid digging into your body while still not bouncing too much. The waist belt is also padded and coated in the same mesh, while the chest belt is a bit more basic, which is fine, given that it bears very little load. It also features four side compression straps for carrying tripods and for stabilization; I found them quite useful for tightening down the contents of the bag and keeping them secure and closer to my body. Made with 500d S-Kodra High Tenacity Nylon, 210d liner, Atilon foam, and 5000mm PU waterproof coating, it's a hardy bag. It weighs almost 5 pounds empty, but on the same token, the back padding, or "Anvil Airway" does an excellent job of keeping pressure off the spine and allowing for good airflow; I never found myself getting uncomfortable, even on some recent 90-degree days.
The Zippers, the Pockets, the Buckles, Oh My
This is where this bag really shines. It's an organizer's dream. Let's start with the the outside. Both sides of the bag feature dual tripod straps (they double as the compression straps) and a pocket for a tripod foot. The side design for tripods is what I prefer by far, as it allows one to access the compartments much more easily, and it generally keeps the weight closer to the body, reducing torque on the back. As you can see in the photo above, I had no problem fitting my ProMaster XC528C travel tripod on the side. The bottoms of the tripod pockets also unzip should you need that — a nice touch. I frequently put a water bottle in the other side pocket. The waist band features two additional pockets, almost like a fanny pack, one zippered and one mesh. They're both about the size of a large fist and work well for putting in a small snack, car keys, or something similar. The last exterior pocket is on the upper half of the front of the bag and is flat. It has a small lanyard with a buckle inside, making it another good place for keys. I found it to be the perfect spot for my passport and other travel documents.
The bottom half of the bag is devoted to camera gear. It unzips in a circular arc to reveal a well padded interior. I actually appreciate the bright yellow; it makes it easy to find little pieces you accidentally drop inside. While there's obviously less space than a backpack fully devoted to camera gear, I found it to be more than enough to fit my gear for a day out hiking or a weekend trip. It's fully customizable and comes with two long inserts and five dividers. I was able to fit my 5D Mark III with a Tamron 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 lens attached, the very big Tamron SP 15-30mm f/2.8 lens, the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L lens (I detached the hood and laid it on top), and half of my also very large WonderPana 145 filter kit into the compartment. The foam is thick, and even as someone who babies their gear, I didn't worry about it being in there. If you have shorter lenses that can be stood on end, you can easily fit four of them in the bag along with two bodies. If I had shorter lenses such as a 35mm or 85mm prime, I would stand them up, allowing me to place two where the 15-30mm was placed. My only complaint was that the circular design made it difficult to reach into the upper portions of the compartment; I wish the access panel went higher and was rectangular.
A nice added touch is the set of two zippered pockets on the flap of the compartment. They're labeled red and green to signify charged and dead batteries, and they sit high enough above the gear that I never worried about them pressing into it.
The top section is where the organization is really stellar. The flap of the flat exterior pocket unzips to reveal another flat compartment with a padded folder and a zippered watertight compartment — another great place to put things like a passport, external hard drive, etc. I placed my other two filters in here. The next compartment is the main upper compartment. Featuring a flat (but pliable) bottom and numerous compartments for pens, memory cards, wallets, and more, it's also where my non-camera travel items went, namely clothes. I'm able to comfortably fit a pair of jeans, two pairs of cargo shorts, a few t-shirts, lots of socks and undies, and a pair of shoes in there. My only complaint about this is that the bottom panel is not sealed on the sides, meaning if I were to carry something like shampoo in the upper compartment, it could drip directly onto my camera gear below if it began to leak. I suspect this was done to give the bag more flex in the middle, but it does make me a little wary when traveling. If I stick to travel sizes (which I do anyway for trips of the length this bag was designed for), I can fit them in that aforementioned watertight compartment anyway, which makes me feel better.
The last compartment is laptop sleeve, which can comfortably hold a 17-inch laptop; my 13-inch Macbook Air practically disappeared inside the elastic keeper. I also kept paperwork such as contracts in this pocket. The good padding on both sides meant I wasn't worried about crushing my computer with my body or gear.
Altogether, using the Borealis is a real joy. It's organization is very logical, well thought out, and well proportioned, meaning no space was left wasted and I could quickly and easily access whatever gear I wanted without making a mess by hunting through things. I quickly became accustomed to its layout and using it became intuitive. It's also comfortable — really comfortable. I've been using it to carry about 40 pounds of gear and other things around, and I've been perfectly pleased. Its sleek design keeps the weight close to my body, and the strap system distributes that weight evenly and comfortably. It's durable, and I trust it to last a while, but even if something goes wrong, it comes with a lifetime warranty. And at $145, I think it's a really great deal.
What I Liked
- Well organized and proportioned
- Very comfortable and ergonomic
- Thoughtful design touches
- Truly a carry-it-all solution
- Lifetime warranty
What I Didn't Like
- Bottom of upper compartment doesn't seal completely
- Circular camera access panel is a bit tough to maneuver around
Overall, I highly recommend the Mountainsmith Borealis. It's become my new favorite bag and is my go-to for those weekend trips or a long hike. Interested in getting your own? Grab it here!