When it comes to high quality bags or packs for the world traveler or the adventurer, or even the soccer mom, student, commuter or just about anyone else, it’s hard to not think of Crumpler Bags as a solution to your needs. Today, we take a look at their new Customary Barge photo/laptop backpack.
Right off the bat, it’s tough to see the Customary Barge as your typical outdoors pack since it’s specified to not only hold photo gear, but also a laptop as well. But, looks can be a little deceiving, and it also depends on your various outdoors pursuits. For those folks that go on “safari” whether overseas or a domestic outing, the Customary Barge is a great answer to those folks that need a pack with such specifications. Some of us photographers like getting back to camp in the evening and having the option of reviewing and editing pictures that were taken throughout the day. We’re a little obsessive that way. It’s additionally important to us if we’d like to post some of those images online from wherever we are at the time. For instance, during the past few Practice What You Preach outings, I’ve personally uploaded images from the woods using my laptop with a wireless phone tethered as a modem. It comes in quite handy and keeps the folks at home who couldn’t come out to play updated with each day’s activities. Uploading files to a server is also a way to back up your images in cases something happens to your equipment or memory cards out in the field. This type of pack is also an ideal solution to those of us who go to trade shows and need access to our camera gear and laptop throughout the day. At various times, we’ll pop into the press room to transfer press information and post news, and this a way to keep a computer handy. Besides, I’m not one that feels real comfortable leaving such an item in the hotel room or the vehicle.
With all of that in mind, I do believe a pack like this falls within the purview of Woods Monkey to review it for its quality, versatility, and effectiveness out in the field. Right off the bat, I’ll say that it’s immediately apparent that the Customary Barge is made very well. The entire pack oozes quality, and more importantly, feels very robust and sturdy. Even empty, the pack is a bit hefty. This is due to the construction materials and to the padding that’s strewn throughout the pack to protect your valuable gear whether it’s your laptop or your cameras and lenses. And, the padding is quite extensive and of better construction that I’ve seen in a lot of bags/packs dedicated to photo gear. There are three main areas of the pack where you pack away the gear, and that’s where we’ll get started.
First, there’s the padded laptop pocket. Crumpler bills it as being able to accommodate a 17″ Mac laptop. I have a Dell E1505 and it slid right in rather snugly and seemed right at home. If it was of similar thickness to my laptop, I’d have a hard time seeing a 17″ version fit in the pocket. But, I don’t have a Mac and can’t really attest to the fit in that regard. However, it covered my needs quite well. After the laptop is nestled inside, there’s a padded flap that folds over and is velcroed in place to keep it from shifting around and to protect the end of the laptop as well. This is one of the better protected laptop pockets I’ve seen in a backpack of this nature. Another thing of note is the interior color. It’s a nice, bright, neon green. Certainly, Crumpler sees it as a fun, hip color, but it also serves another good purpose as well. The bright green color is a nice contrast to the typical, black pieces and accessories that you’ll find with cameras—such as lens caps, cords, and remotes. Sometimes, these items get overlooked easily in packs with a black or dark gray interior. No such problem here!
Next up are the two main compartments for storing the photography gear, and believe me, the gear can accumulate very quickly, so you need all the room you can get. The top compartment is opened via zipper and is the spot where you can store extra lenses. You’re not going to fit in large telephoto lenses for wildlife in this spot, but this area will accommodate the various lenses you’ll use the most during your adventure. What I do like about the padded walls is that they are easily customizable to fit your individual gear. And, if you don’t have enough extra lenses to fit all the spots, you’ve got plenty of room in there for things like filters, filter wrenches, and other such paraphenalia. As you can see, this compartment is right behind the bend in the shoulder straps, so you’ll have to shrug off the pack to get to the items you need–unless you have your own personal porter. Because of its positioning, this area is pretty secure and will protect that expensive glass quite nicely. I’ll admit that it’s a little frustrating at times to not be able to open up the pocket to a wide position for more room to manuever, but it’s a necessary tradeoff. If you were able to zip this area wide open, it would be easy for you to forget to fully zip it up and you could have lenses dropping out of the pack onto the hard ground. Obviously, they’ve kept protecting your lenses a priority, and that’s the best choice. I’ve seen folks that have had cameras or lenses fall out of a pack because it wasn’t fully zipped and it’s a sickening sight to behold when you consider today’s prices.
Just like the guys in the military always say, “One is none, and two is one.” Basically, that means you should always have a backup on hand–that includes camera gear that you’re using for important occasions like weddings and shows. It’s even more important out in the field where you’ve got the potential for some bumps and knocks, and even harsh weather. So, even though you’ve got your main shooter out in your hands, you’ve still got room in the pack to stow away an extra body, and even another lens or two, aside from the top lens compartment. At the bottom of the pack, there’s another compartment that you can zip open (like a bottom sleeping bag pocket that you see on large backpacks). This is where you can store even more of your gear, including a spare body or two. Just like the top compartment, the bottom one uses Crumpler’s “Super Snake Divider” to allow for customizing spots for your own gear. Since I’ve never been accused of being the sharpest pencil in the box, I’ll admit to a bit of bewilderment the first couple of minutes when I saw the divider construction, but I was able to sort it out after a bit of study and negotiation.
The configuration I came up with wasn’t the prettiest, but it met my needs for the time being. I was able to insert my Canon 40D with its large battery grip and a 24-70 lens along with my Canon 1N film camera. Every now and then, I like to get back to my roots and do some black and white film shooting, so I try to keep my film camera with me when I can. After those two were in place, there wasn’t room for much more, and because of the large battery grip on the 40D, it was a little tough to get it zipped up without a little umph to the action. But, I got them both in there, and if I didn’t want to mess with the tight zipping in the future, I can slip off the battery grip and set it in there beside the two cameras. Keep in mind that I’ll always have one camera in the hand, so that means I can have two more bodies in the pack as well with 3-5 lenses in the top compartment. That’s a lot of gear! Certainly, I’m not going to carry 3 camera bodies with me. One backup is enough. But, this is a good demonstration of the amount of room in this pack to stow away all the stuff you want. Take out one body, and then you’ve got room for a flash, a diffuser, and lots of cleaning supplies and other accessories.
If you’ll notice, in front of the padding divider (closest to the pack) there’s a a decent amount of space to slide a few flat items. I’ve got a couple of small reflectors that I like to use for macro shots and they fit in that spot quite nicely. Also, this would be a good place to stash a map and/or the GPS. Since you can use a GPS in conjunction with the laptop, you’ve got a nice way to mark the location of your great shots and transfer your data over. On top of all of that, there are also two elastic pockets (one on each side) to stash away snacks or your typical 1 liter Nalgene style bottle for water or your other favorite power drink. Also, if you’ll look at the bottom compartment from the side angle, you’ll notice the sturdy material that’s sewn into place to keep that pocket from opening up too far as well. This is essential when dealing with expensive gear and when you’re a little anal (like me) about making sure your gear is safe and secure.
Still not enough for you? Well, there’s more to this pack upon closer inspection. Aside from the various compartments and outside storage, there are also several different, smaller pockets where you can stash away other essential accessories like batteries, cords, memory cards, and the like. If you like, you can even squeeze in a portable hard drive to further back up your images and other data if you really want to make sure that your data is protected. Throw the kitchen sink in there if you want to, but that weight will eventually get into the stratosphere.
The one negative about a pack like this and all of its storage options is how heavy the package is going to be when you get everything stashed and tied onto it. On the side, they’ve even included detachable tripod pocket that will allow you an easy way to transport your tripod into the wilderness or your set. It’s a great option, but again, there’s more weight. By the time every nook and cranny filled up, I noticed that the whole get-up was a substantial weight. Honestly, it’s more weight than what I would want to traipse up a trail with, so that’s where you’ve got to be judicious with your packing and in deciding what gear is the most important to take with you. Also, another consideration to keep in the back of your mind is one question. “Where’s all your outdoors gear going to go?”. The bad thing about having a backpack like this is that once you’ve filled it up with gear, you’ve still got to have a way to carry all your woods gear including a knife, a survival kit, food, drinks, etc. So, that’s yet another reason to be discriminating on what you choose to take as far as your camera gear goes. You can use the extra space in the pack for all the outdoors gear you need to have with you as well.
Fortunately, the construction of the pack is extremely good. The Customary Barge is as well built as any pack of this nature that I’ve used in the past. In fact, it has a couple of points that make it stand out from some of the others that I have tried. First, the straps are very nicely padded and are extremely comfortable, even with the extra weight. They have a chest strap in place to help take the weight from pulling back on the shoulders, though I rarely use a chest strap. There are those that like them, though. The straps also include a couple of attachment point for things like cell phones, GPS, or maybe a compass. Also, the back panel has channels to allow for better airflow and helps keep your back from sweating quite as much. I always wondered why it took so long for someone to come up with this innovation, but more and more makers are including this type of heat reduction design.
The pack material is 900D which is very tough and also water resistent. Even so, Crumpler rightly included a rain shell that you pull down from a small compartment in the top of the pack. When you’ve got electronic gear like cameras, lenses, and a laptop, this extra bit of protection from the elements is very necessary. Also, I’ve heard and read comments where it helps with keeping out dust as well. If I ever go on a true Safari in Africa, I’ll keep that in mind. During the past couple of months, I used the Customary Barge in a variety of situations ranging from the woods to shows, but I never got to test it out in bad weather. But, the material covers the pack well, and it’s hard to mess something simple like that up. I’m confident that it’ll do its part in protecting your gear provided you do your part in using it. All in all, the entire ensemble is constructed with the theme of protection for your gear in mind-from the substantial padding on the inside of the pack, to the implementation of the attachment points and the rain cover. No matter what expedition you intend to take, whether to your next summit or to the next big expo, the Crumpler Customary Barge will be up to the task.
I enjoyed my time working with and wearing this pack. The positive aspects are the construction and the comfort level. The only real downside is that it can get quite heavy if you pack it full. Even empty, it’s got a little weight to it to start off, so be choosey on what you decide to include for your day’s activities. Aside from that, I think you’ll find that the Customary Barge has plenty of room for the gear you need, and it’s a versatile package when you consider the configurable dividers in the camera gear compartments. I’ve tried to think of anything they might have forgotten or left out when they put this pack together, but I can’t think of anything they missed. If you’re in the market for a pack that will house all the gear for your next trip so you don’t have to have separate bags for your laptop and your camera gear, then I think you should give Crumpler’s newest design a close look. It lives up to their reputation for quality, and that’s no small feat!