Sunday, 17 February 2013

Carrying Your Camera Gear Up a Mountain - Arc'teryx Axios 35

Last year, I wrote a popular post on Carrying Your Camera Up a Mountain and Jaakko Heikka reviewed the Ortlieb Aquazoom for me. Before you read this post, you might want to take a look at my post about my intended photography and how I intend to carry my Canon 5D Mark II on my trips. However, that's not the end of things. When shooting stock, the standards required are high and tack sharp images are essential. In low light and, really, in most light, that means a tripod, mirror lockup and remote or timed shutter release. I might also use, for some shoots, off-camera flash, gels, softbox, filters, diffuser, reflector and perhaps even a second lens. It all depends on the shots I am looking to get and where I am going.

So - I need a rucksack that will carry like a hiking rucksack and allow me to take a tripod as well as, potentially, all the other kit I want. I'd like it to be durable, lightweight, comfortable and have some features I would not normally want if travelling ultralight. Overall volume: 35 litres is enough for me for a multi-day trip - like the Laugavegur in Iceland later this year. Lightweight: I'd be aiming for around 1.25kg or less. Features: a side pocket and straps to hold the tripod as well as side zipped access and/or lid zipped access to the pack so I can store the smaller, go-to camera kit items like filters and my strobist kit (off-camera flash, gels, softbox, filters, diffuser, reflector).

Go and take a look at Think Tank, Tamrac and Lowepro? Sure, but I am not carrying my camera INSIDE the rucksack. It'll be around my neck in the Toploader - far more quickly accessible for shots which do not delay things. So I don't need the complex interior system in those sorts of packs. And how do they compare in comfort to a company which makes HIKING packs? Comfort is essential as is simplicity, as long as you get the features you need.

I've carried Arc'teryx packs before and there's no doubting they are high-spec and comfortable. So when I identified the Axios 35 as meeting my demands and they sent me one to test, I was happy to oblige.

What makes the Axios 35 perfect for my needs? First of all, let's analyse it very quickly as a pack and go into more detail later. 1.25kg for the tall, 37 litre, version which is extendable to 41 litres. Compared to my alpine pack, the Crux 37, it is heavier by 250g. Yet I find it more comfortable not least because the Crux's greatest flaw is a fixed back size which, if you have anything over a 19" torso (mine is 21") is too small. I still like the Crux but the Axios tall version fits me better. There is side zip and lid zip access (two, in fact, for the lid). There is a stretch mesh pocket across the front - a feature I love on my Gorilla for quick access stuff like waterproofs, navigation and food. The shoulder straps are not as good as those on the Kata 37 (now renamed the Kea) but still very good - the Kea is heavier than the Axios for the same volume. Side pockets with accompanying compression straps will take two legs of my tripod (one left out) and keep it secure to the pack - I tighten the compression straps over the two legs in the pocket so the final leg is actually out of the pocket and outside the straps. Even with a ballhead attached, albeit angled downwards, the tripod comes level with the top of the pack. 

The hipbelt pockets I have experienced on the Kea/Kata before and they are great - the stretch mesh is the same as on the main pocket and better than zip access pockets but just as secure. Compass, snacks whatever go in here easily. The sternum strap is different from that on the Kea/Kata and the Spear 20 but still good and easily adjustable - unlike others I have used.

So from a pack point of view, it's pretty good. Heavier than I'd like (by about 250g) but I can live with that for the features it gives me.

What about for photography? The main issue is my tripod needs to be stable, secure, tucked away and easy to carry. The Axios 35 meets that requirement. And what about my filters? They go in the top pocket, in a drybag. Strobist kit? Packed in the main compartment in a dry bag but accessible via the side zip access. I have a pack that balances my need to have a comfortable carry when hiking normally, and allows me capture what I need to, when I need to.

Let's look at the main features in more detail. The usual stuff - top grab handle, a 'breathable' back panel, breathable and padded contoured shoulder straps - all standard but all work well. I've never had much use for complicated back systems as I'll sweat when working hard regardless of the 'system' attached to my back. So a simple padded and breathable back is all I really want. High wear areas are reinforced with a higher denier fabric - useful if you're taking it off repeatedly to get to photography kit for more demanding shoots en route. The adjustable sternum strap is a great feature, as I've said previously, and the hipbelt is contoured, supportive and comfy with small mesh stash pockets which are far better than zipped pockets. The stretch mesh keeps stuff in perfectly safely but it's easier to get at the contents with gloves on than fumbling with a zip. With mitts on, however, I'd need to remove them first before taking what I need.

The lid is removable and extendable and has two zipped compartments. For a normal pack, this would be too much for me, but for a photography pack, it's perfect - you need the help organising your extra crap which you'll inevitably need access to en route. Removeable lid? I've always found them a gimmick but some people might use them.

37 litres swallows whatever kit I need, beyond my photography kit, for a one or two week trek - camping, sleeping, eating, drinking, weather resistance. It all fits in nicely and in a neat, compact, sleek pack. Unlike, say, the Lowepro Rover Pro which looks bulky, is heavier and certainly won't carry anything like as securely and comfortably as the Axios.

How has it performed so far? I took it to the Trøndelag in Norway where I carried it cross-country skiing and walking. The tripod fits snugly in the side pocket and carries securely. I leave the ball-head attached with the camera mount pointed downwards. This allows me quick access for getting the camera set up. 37 litres for the tall version means I have enough space for everything I have needed so far. The two lid zippered pockets are stiff, but they're new. I'll attach longer zip-pulls as I may well be using this pack wearing mitts following my experiences on ATE's Polar Thinking and Survival Course. There is a rather neat tube pocket on the opposite side to that which has the side-access zip - in here I can put my glasses case with contacts/Oakley Flak Jackets and anything I want to keep inside the pack but easy to find. It's durable to with a tougher base.

How does it carry? Very comfortably. I was carrying around 5kg so not the sternest test, but still - the tall version fits me nicely, the straps sit perfectly on my shoulder bones and the sternum strap is easily adjusted. I always prefer big buckles on the hip-belt as this is principal load-carrying area and I like easy and fine adjustment. I like the back system - it is nicely contoured as all Arc'teryx packs are and cushioned perfectly. Whether it will breathe more easily than other packs remains to be seen but I am not too concerned either way. I see the Axios as my hiking/photography pack but also as a great winter pack. The fabric is light but durable and the webbing loops mean I can carry technical equipment easily too. It's easy to delve into the outer main mesh pocket for hats, food, mitt shells - whatever. In winter, I won't be storing a shell in there - it's not large enough for a fully-featured shell - but I suspect I'll be wearing it or I can drape it over the top of the pack, just beneath the lid as there is a rope-loop.

All in all, this is a superb pack and perfect for what I need it for, just like everything Arc'teryx have sent me so far. I really cannot complain.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Make Your Own Pulk and save $700

Not me. Mark Roberts wrote this post and, frankly, it's a worthwhile read if you are going to be cross-country skiing with an expedition pulk. Here's the link to Mark's post.

Save yourself $700...

I'm going to look at doing this at some point - not for the UK of course, but in Scandinavia, it would be a great idea.