Let’s cut straight to it: the Mountainsmith Borealis is a very fine backpack, and it’s a very fine camera bag. It’s exceptionally well made, logically designed by people who clearly know what photographers need, and I think it’ll last a lifetime. I’ve got just a few caveats, but this is a good backpack.
I’ve owned Mountainsmith bags since I was a young mountaineer in Colorado, which is where Mountainsmith are headquartered. I’ve been using one of their bags for 20 years, and it’s still going strong. The reason these bags last so long is that there are no compromises in materials and workmanship.
The Borealis’s 500 denier fabric means it is tough and abrasion-resistant, and it has a durable water-repellent coating that keeps dew and light rain off the innards. Not only does it feature the highest quality YKK zippers, but the main compartments use really large zippers making it easier and faster to access gear. There are bar tacks at each stress point, which helps ensure the straps won’t pull out or separate, and every seam is taped. Taped seams have are enclosed by another piece of high durability fabric which ensures the seams won’t split and it also helps to weatherproof the seams. No matter how much you stuff into the bag, the seams will hold and the large zippers will make it easy to close.
Form Follows Function
The Borealis is a pretty good looking backpack, but it’s not trendy or frilly in any way. It has what it needs to be a very useful backpack, and it does it well. It was designed in cooperation with Andy Mann, an adventure photographer who works in extreme environments and travels most of the time. Here are some of the key features that stand out and make this bag a joy to use.
Many bags have a laptop pocket, but this one is large enough to fit most 17″ laptops. For me, that means my 15″ fits with room to spare, which makes it easy to get out quickly at the airport security line. I can also use this pocket for a hydration bladder when I’m not carrying a laptop, and it’s large enough that my avalanche shovel blade fits in there, too. Also, the padding on the pocket is very good, but my laptop fits into a small pocket inside which keeps it floating off the bottom of the bag so it doesn’t get knocked around when I set the bag down.
The entire inside of the bag is yellow, which makes it much brighter inside. This is a big deal because it makes it easy to find things in the bag. Most camera equipment is black, and black camera bags become bottomless pits. Even at night without a flashlight, I can easily find lens caps inside this bag.
Deep Camera Section
It’s important that the camera is well protected, and this bag does that exceptionally well. The bottom is well padded and the rain cover adds even more padding. Better still, the foam dividers are much taller than any other bag I’ve owned, which makes it very unlikely that anything will smash the camera. The section is large enough for plenty of camera equipment, no matter what camera you use. The photo shows it will a full frame Nikon inside, but I can fit all my Micro Fourthirds gear in it–two bodies and ten or so lenses–and still have room for a speedlight or two. When you add the top section, which is really large, there’s plenty of room to carry everything you need.
Pockets and Pouches
Besides the camera section and the large upper section, there are also plenty of dividers and pockets. Hip belt pockets are cool, but my favorites are the color-coded zippered pockets in the camera section. they are Red and Green, and are intended for batteries: put the fresh batteries in the green pocket, and spent batteries in the red pocket. It’s a terrific idea and helps keep things organized. It also has good innovations for carrying tripods and even light stands.
This pack is comfortable to carry even when fully loaded. I easily wore 60 pounds of gear and computer tools. Load lifter straps at the top of the shoulder straps help adjust the load to the right height on your body. Sternum and hip belts are a must on packs for me, and these are both comfortable and adjustable. The grab handle at the top is very comfortable and well made. There’s an air channel system in the back padding which is pretty good. I’ve used better, but this does an adequate job of letting air circulate against your back. The problem with a suspension this good is that 60 pounds of gear
The problem with a suspension this good is that 60 pounds of gear doesn’t feel too bad when you first lift it, which makes it seem reasonable to carry that much gear. It’s not reasonable, and you don’t need to…but you can.
It’s clear that Andy Mann’s input has made this a better pack. It’s a great tool or carrying gear comfortably and safely and has several useful innovations that make it good for shooting out of, which is not common in camera bags.
Here’s Andy Mann talking baout the bag himself.
There are just three small things that could be better. First, the layout of the camera dividers was not very good when it arrived. They are easily rearranged, but I love it when a bag arrives with a great layout.
Second, the green and red pockets are a great idea, so why not do more of that? put colored tape on all the pockets. Use zipper pulls of different colors for each compartment. If I’m working alone, colors don’t matter, but when I’ve got an assistant, those colors will be invaluable. Saying, “Please grab the polarizer from the purple pocket,” is so much better than saying, “The upper left pocket…no, my left…nope, the other side…” See what I mean?
Lastly, this bag is a little heavy. It’s nearly five pounds empty. That means it’s not an everyday bag for me. All that weight is going toward protecting my gear, but I’d rather take a lesser bag to the coffee shop. Having said that, if I only had money for one bag, this would be a good one. You can’t upgrade a lighter bag for heavy duty use.
The best compliment I can give is that this is the bag I would want my assistant to carry my gear in. I know it would be well protected no matter how roughly another person handles it. It is truly good enough to use in mountaineering and is tough enough to last years of abuse. there are thousands of camera bags out there, and yet this one includes some important innovations to which I hope other manufacturers pay attention. My small caveats shouldn’t keep you from buying this bag. It’s a little big and heavy for my around town use, but when I travel and explore, this is the bag I want with me. Find more details on the Borealis at Mountainsmith’s website.