Shimoda Designs made a big entrance into the adventure outdoor camera bag market with its original Explore series. Since then there has been a lot of competition from both new designers and industry leaders. Not to be outdone Shimoda is back with a new evolution of their previous bag with the Action X series. Outdoor camera bags designed for hiking and adventure sports are quickly becoming a highly competitive although still a niche market. Each new entrant brings new ideas and innovations that raise the overall market design. For us photographers who necessitate using these bags not only for tools but as a means to ensure our health and wellbeing in difficult working environments. This competition has vastly improved how and what we can carry into the field.
This is a sponsored article and Shimoda Design made available to me a pre-release demo model for my testing. However, the opinions and following review are mine alone and no sponsor has had any influence or feedback on my review process for the Action X30.
Shimoda Designs led by lead designer Ian Millar set a standard for what an adventure pack could be both in functional features and overall build quality. Since many companies have risen to meet that expectation but there is still room for improvement and there is still a more comfortable bag to be had. With their new series of bags, Shimoda Design is trying to show that they have worked with outdoor photographers on what is needed and listened to their customer's feedback. The Action X series of bags and accessories are the result of this welcomed approach to product design. There are three different sizes for the backpack design at 30L, 50L, and 70L. Of which the X30 was the only one I had hands-on time with.
Who Is It For?
Primarily these bags are for those who find themselves having to hike to their locations, wildlife, landscape, astrophotography, and especially anyone in the wide variety of action sports category. They carry a good amount of still and video equipment in a more comfortable and accessible way while still being durable enough in harsh environments. These I would argue are the two most important factors when designing a bag like this. However, there are a lot of new but minor features or possible improvements that have been made that are clearly the influence of sports photographers. There could also be a secondary market for more urban uses at least of the smaller X30 version in how some of these new features have been implemented and I suspect this was to make a broader appealing bag for video use.
The original Shimoda bags were built extremely tough to a high-quality standard because Millar as founder and lead designer wanted to create something that took advantage of all the advances in tech and materials available. You can read our review of the Explore 60 by Mike Wilkinson here.
The Action X bags seem to continue that standard in the same way. The majority of the bag is made from a tough carbonate resin coated ripstop nylon and it feels splendid. Most bags are made from some form of durable nylon and waterproofing but this stuff just looks and feels invincible to the elements. Apparently on the outside is a 3 stage coating process with an additional 2 stage coating process on the backside. All the zippers are YKK with almost all the external zippers being water sealed number 5s and the back panel zipper being the larger number 10 style. All of the buckles are heavy duty YKK quick releases easily used even with gloves on. The bottom section is made from 1680D nylon with a polyurethane resin coating.
This bag has a ton of features both new and returning. I couldn't possibly go into detail on everything but I will try to highlight the newest features that set the Action X apart as well as some that have been carried over from the Explore series of bags.
- Water bottle pouches on either side that double as tripod leg holders
- An expandable roll top adding an additional 7 liters of space
- New side entry door for quick camera access
- A removable waist belt
- Removable helmet harness
- TPU straps for holding gear more securely
- Swapable harness straps, women's specific straps, and extra cushion plus straps
- Newly designed V2 core units
Two of the more common complaints from the Explore series was the lack of any way to carry a large water bottle and the compartment design for non-camera storage at the top of the bag. Although both the Explore and Action X have dedicated sleeves for a water bladder with hose routing. Sometimes you don't need the extra water and weight of a bladder system. So Millar and his team redesigned the side pockets to have two stowable mesh pockets that can double as either water bottle holders or additional support for tripod legs. It’s a cleverly hidden design that allows for the pocket to be usable even when the mesh is stowed, keeping the bag slim and clean looking. The side straps can be used to tighten anything stored down further if needed. The only downside I see with it is that when the mesh bags are in use the zippered pocket is left open for it to hang out. The pocket doesn't connect to the inside of the bag and is covered well even though it is open. Something could fall out if you forgot it was in there and water might get in if in heavy rain. I also wish the mesh pockets could be removable.
The roll top is a great addition to the bag. It adds an additional 7 liters of storage space making even the smaller X30 bag much more versatile for action sports. What a lot of manufacturers don't realize is that camera gear only makes up for half the gear outdoor photographers have to carry. If I am doing a rock climbing shoot I need climbing gear, if I am hiking I might need overnight gear or emergency gear. Even landscape and wildlife photographers often need to carry extra layers and food for a long day. The roll top really makes storing more so much easier while giving you a way to slim down the bag when not needed. Additionally, there is a zippered entry into the top compartment similar to most traditional hiking packs with two mesh zippered pockets. This allows access to heavier items without having to unpack the whole top section. I did a quick test and could store a sleeping bag, one person tent, camp pad, stove, and food for 3 nights along with my standard hiking camera gear. That is pretty impressive for the smallest of the three bags. It is worth noting that I have a super efficient camping setup specifically designed for light single person trips.
A lot of the quality features that made the Explore series great have continued on in the Action X series too. The bag is still self standing when fully loaded. It still has two heavy-duty haul handles one on top and on the side. There is still a front pocket running the full length of the bag large enough for another laptop, rain gear, or emergency gear. In this pocket is also a couple of smaller zippered pockets and a dedicated water bladder sleeve. The multi-configurable strap system on the front panel makes a return. This is one of the most versatile systems I have seen on a backpack. You can carry multiple items at once or use it to lock down much larger items like video tripods. This is essential for small video crews who still need to haul decent gear deep into nature.
The rear panel still is the main access point into the bag and core unit, opening up sideways like a door. There is a 15 inch laptop sleeve on the panel itself. In order to make the waist strap removable this time it is connected directly onto the back panel. This has two downsides. One, when opening the back panel the straps flap around or need to be held in place. Two, you can no longer open the back panel while wearing the pack on your hip and spinning it in front of you. Although I’m sure these two things will be annoying or disappointing to some users I feel the trade off for having a removable waistband is worth it. There are lots of times I just don't connect my waistband while hiking and having them flap around gets annoying. I think this feature opens up a lot more versatility to the bag. Especially if you wanted to use it in a more urban area.
Here is a video break down from Shimoda Design.
New Core Units
The X30 version is designed for use with the medium sized mirrorless core unit. This helps slim down the overall size of the pack and keeping the weight close to the body. Making it perfect for wearing while also participating in things like biking, skiing, snowmobiling, etc. It will fit a non-gripped DSLR body like a 5D or D850 no problem a well as several lenses. I was able to pack 2 DSLR bodies and 3 lenses including my 70-200mm without any issues. All of the new core units are designed with a side opening door that interlocks with the side pocket of the bag. This is a much improved design over the Explore series. I’m a big fan of bags with side pocket access, as being able to grab a camera quickly without taking off the bag is always useful. However even though I was able to pull out a 5D with 24-70mm lens mounted, I’d say it is a pretty tight fit and configuring the core unit for this does limit what else can be easily stored in it. As mentioned it is clearly designed for smaller mirrorless systems. The larger X50 comes with a DSLR designed core unit and slightly more room making it probably the better choice if you are planning to carry a full DSLR kit. Based on my usage I think it would be a tough decision for me between the X30 and X50 bags. I don’t shoot mirrorless but the X30 has a ton of room for its size and still remains slim and sleek looking when packed.
Here is a video break down of all three core units from Shimoda Design.
Performance and Comfort
In the short time I was able to test the X30 I kept finding more little features to customize how it could be used. There are countless loops and attachment points for additional accessory straps. All the straps have tie downs so you aren’t left with loose straps dangling. Both pockets on the shoulder straps are compact and not bulky while also being large and useful when needed. Lots of small clever design elements went into getting more use out of easily accessible spaces.
There are a lot of ways specifically designed to store sports related gear and I really appreciate the thought that went into that. There is a removable helmet harness, which I found could also be attached on top using the upper side straps. I found this useful for carrying my rain jacket but it does mean you can't use the side straps for a tripod at the same time. The TPU rubberized straps are amazing for holding gear tightly to the pack. All packs including traditional hiking ones should be incorporating these straps. You can configure the pack to carry both skis and snowboards. Something no other backpack I have tested can do. As a snowboarder that is a great feature. There are gear loops on the waistband perfect for attaching climbing gear. It is clear that Shimoda is listening to the pro photographers they are working with.
The harness system as a whole isn't much different from the Explore series which was already very popular among reviewers. It is completely adjustable and designed with a wider section that covers the chest and curves back under the arms perfectly. It is by far the best design I have come across on any camera pack and even better than some popular hiking packs. Shimoda makes several versions to get an even better fit including a set with thicker padding for heavier packs and a set specifically designed for women by female photographers in the field.
All that being said the features that make this pack so comfortable also reduce airflow. The pack is definitely designed and made with mountain ranges in mind. If you were to hike with this pack in a warmer climate or you generally run hotter while hiking I think this pack would make you sweat more. I would probably choose to be more sweaty over being sore and as I've said in several of my reviews of other bags I don’t think anyone has really made a truly breathable hiking pack. This is where having proper outdoor clothing and layering comes in.
What I Didn’t Like
- I wish the water bottle pouches were removable
- I’d love to see a travel duffel bag for storing and transporting in
- The waist belt can get in the way when opening the back panel
- Wider shoulder straps and back panel also mean less airflow in hotter climates
- The X30 is smaller and slimmer but could have been more carry-on friendly
What I Liked
- Overall durability and weather sealing
- Subtle branding
- Sports gear attachment options
- Expandable roll top and side panel access
- Swapable, adjustable, and extremely comfortable shoulder straps
The two biggest factors for me when looking for an adventure type backpack like this are comfort while carrying a lot of gear and the ability to carry not just my camera kit but the essential gear for the environment or sport I'm shooting. By far the shoulder straps are some of the most comfortable I've ever used. Even though the overall more boxy design of the bags can sometimes make them seem bulkier, the interior design and external features make for a much more customizable experience. All helping to make a better fitting bag that is more functional for each individual and their specific needs. If nothing else this approach and continuing to get design feedback from working photographers makes these bags worth considering.
I suspect I’d be happier with the X50 for the type of work I do and the gear I carry, but I can’t deny the agility and compact fit you get with the X30. I also believe because of the subtle branding, darker colors, removable waist belt, and compact sleek pocket design. The X30 could easily make a good small video kit or travel setup for urban shooters. Especially anyone needing to go from the streets one day, to hiking outdoors the next.
Shimoda Designs is launching the new Action X line of products via Kickstarter starting today with some reasonably priced package deals. The X30 I reviewed packaged with a mirrorless core unit and a rain cover will be available for $250. Given that you often have to purchase the ICU and rain cover separately from most companies this makes the price much lower than competitors. Similarly, the X70 with core unit and rain cover will be available for $365. There are a bunch of other packages and new accessories so take a look.