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Thread started 23 Oct 2007 (Tuesday) 17:09
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Mountainsmith Odyssey backpack review

 
Imaginos
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Oct 23, 2007 17:09 |  #1

After about six weeks with the Mountainsmith Odyssey (external link) camera backpack, I figured I’d write a review of this “off the beaten path” camera backpack.

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Background

Mountainsmith is one of the venerable old companies of the outdoor industry. Back in my day, if you were going to Antarctica, Patagonia, or the Himalayas, you got your gear from North Face, Marmot, or Lowe Alpine. Anything short of that, Mountainsmith and Lowe Alpine reigned as dueling kings for technical and serious outdoor backpacks. My knowledge of their products is dated to the early 90s when I was still an active mountaineer and rescuer, however, their past performance is the standard that I hold them to when I’m considering their current products.

Lowe Alpine is a company familiar to many of us: LowePro is their dedicated camera division, and by my read, the most popular. Mountainsmith has a modest line of 9 different backpacls (external link) that I wouldn’t describe as competition, but more as an alternative. My view of it is that LowePro is targeted more toward the consumer market and Mountainsmith it targeted more toward the technical hiking market.

All that said, extensively using two other Mountainsmith backpacks from antiquity has set my expectations: a rugged and intelligent backpack for difficult hiking with a camera kit.

Features


Overall, the construction is as expected for a serious outdoor backpack. It’s much more rugged than a lot of the lumbar-wannabe day packs that abound these days. This is not a hybrid pack that allows you to carry camera equipment as well as some camping gear--all of it's internal storage is dedicated to camera storage. While the lack of that kind of space would introduce certain logistical problems, as a camera pack, I would have no reservations about storing my cameras and glass in this in an Odyssey for a week long trek into most moderate the wilderness areas if the other problems were somehow solved. Most of that is due to the comfort of this particular pack, but it’s got a lot to do with features.

External 20" x 16.5" x 7" for a net 2197 cubic inches (36 liters)

12.75” h x 10.25” w x 2.25” dedicated laptop sleeve.

The main back support is externally padded and has a foam core stiffener. When it’s open, it seems rather flimsy for a bag this size, but when zipped closed, the internal dividers stabilize the backing rather well.

Shoulder supports are a heavy nylon and foam core construction with adjustments at both ends with an adjustable cross-chest stabilizer strap. In my opinion, the top and bottom adjustments on the shoulder straps are critical for getting a proper fit on a bag this size….particularly since I didn’t know this bit of wisdom in my younger years and I have increasing back problems as a result.
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There are carry handles on the top and side. Convenient for air travel, but not really a wow-factor.

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Typical nylon mesh water bottle pouches on either side with an elastic drawstring closure.
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Both sides have accessory gear straps at the top and the bottom of the pack. If you’re using either of these, the lower strap tends to interfere with the water bottle pouch. There’s another set of strap on the bottom of the bag that could hold an additional tripod, or some other sort of equipment. There one last set of three for the back--these are unique in that they fold away into clever little compartments that will keep them out of the way of some of the other features on the back, notably access to the laptop and other compartments. There is also a fold-away catch at the bottom that’s sized to keep poles from snagging. It’s a big too small for the feet of a folded tripod, but I have a hard time imagining a monopod that won’t fit.
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The laptop compartment is on the back and exposed at the surface. Inside it has a typical ID/wallet/key pouch with two pen holders (ink pens, not lens pens). There’s room to fit a spare battery and/or power cords, mouse, discs, and so on. My main objection here is that the laptop is fairly well exposed to being crushed if you have to drop the pack. Given the overall design paradigm, I don’t know what else could have been done.
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Outside the laptop compartment is another half-length zip chamber that’s otherwise free of the endemic pockets/pouches/zips everywhere else. This has been my #1 place to stuff some fleece or a rain jacket since it will provide additional padding for the laptop.

At the very bottom of the back is the tuck-away rain fly. Most of the pack’s construction is waterproof and will be fine in a short spurt of rain, but zipper leak is not unheard of and having a sopping wet bag sucks. The downside of the rain fly is that it won’t cover anything tied to the external attachments aside from the water pouches.

The main compartment has two full length L-shaped Velcro dividers, 6 mid-sized dividers to compartmentalize it as you would typically expect, and two smaller dividers for the middle channel. This compartment is big. 90% of the bag’s volume is available in a configurable setup with little interference. You can easily fit 1 to 2 bodies with 5 – 6 lens normal sized lenses, and still have room for one or two of the 100mm+ L zooms, or something the size of the 300 2.8L. To put it bluntly, this chamber is cavernous. In the below picture (and from my sig) I clearly do not have enough stuff to fill this space to capacity, so I’ve been using the additional room for other hiking materials (a change of socks, snacks, toilet paper, etc).
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I'm sorry I couldn't fill this beast to capacity, but I don't have enough glass for that....and some of it was in use to take the picture.

The padded waist-belts have two compartments each. They have a smallish main compartment with netting that is conspicuously designed to hold CF cards or the BP511 type batteries (total of four such compartments, pancaked on each belt, the outer one being noticeably smaller). The larger inner chambers will easily hold a 4-6 card CF case, LP-E4 battery, or two to three 77mm filter cases.

Pros

Ruggedness is a key word here. Like most products from Mountainsmith, this is not a pack for the mass consumer market. This pack uses materials and construction that is intended to be used and abused is some very challenging terrain. There is little or no risk of errant rips from branches or it falling apart from hard use. You can fully expect this pack to last for years to come.

This pack is supremely rich in features. There is a pocket, pouch, strap, loop, zipper, doohickey, or some manner of widgetry to secure just about any camera equipment you can imagine. Most of these items are solid and thoughtful in their design and placement. I never encountered a situation where I “wanted” an additional storage mechanism. I'm guessing that a 500mm+ prime lenses would be problematic due to overall length, but that's probably the first place the limitations will show up.

Cavernous. You can fit the big iron inside, and have room for friends. And it’ll still adjust nicely for a stable, comfortable fit.
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From left to right: Lowepro Slingshot AW300, Mountainsmith Odyssey, and an antique Lowe Alpine Contour 40.


Cons

This is not a quick-access pack like a should bag or the slingshot family. To change equipment more complex than a CF card or battery, you have to stop, but the pack down, change gear, remount, then move on with life. This should be an expected limitation for any backpack camera kit, however, it is with mentioning that the size of this bag makes it a noticeably tiring exercise. Additionally, the chronic right angles at all edges of the bag can introduce a certain awkwardness in dense forests or brush.

This is not a casual pack. This is a bag for people who intend to set up a camp somewhere, then use this pack for a day’s shooting in the remote wildernesses. This is not a stand alone pack that will enable you to easily take everything you need all at once; from the concept level down, it's dedicated to move camera gear and has sparse facilities for anything else.

This is an expensive pack. Weighing in at around $230-ish from most vendors, this is probably one of the most expensive dedicated purpose packs that is commonly available.

Conclusion

If you’re going to be sticking to established trails and have a vehicle nearby, look at the Mountainsmith Parallax (external link) or any number of the popular LowePro (external link) products that are better suited to that kind of use. Similarly, if you are going to be hiking in unimproved wildernesses and are looking for “a-do-it-all-with-one-pack” kind of pack to store a few days worth of kit, look at the Mountainsmith Boreal AT (external link) or the similar hybrid packs; this pack doesn't lend itself to extended treks due to the limited space available for non-camera equipment such as a sleeping bag, food, and water, although some people will probably be able to lash enough of that to the outside to get by for a few days at most.

That said, if you’re looking for a rugged, stable pack that will move a significant amount of equipment over rough terrain for less than a day, the Mountainsmith Odyssey excels. I'd recommend this pack for people who want to take a 300mm or 400mm prime a substantial distance over unusually rough terrain, or for people who intend to go into the middle of no where with multiple bodies and a large selection of other equipment. When doing so, be mindful that there's limited features for anything other than camera equipment.

Canon 1D Mark III | 16-35 2.8L II | 24-105 4L IS | 50 1.2L | 70-200 2.8L IS| 100 2.8 MACRO| 300 4L IS | Gitzo 3530S | Arca Z-1dp
http://www.canonfuse.n​et (external link) It's for my Canon.

  
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slappy ­ sam
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Oct 23, 2007 21:07 |  #2

Cool pack, nice detailed review.

So, how would you compare this pack to the lowepro nature trekker (if you are familiar with that one)? And you say that this pack would be good for overnights (if I read correctly), however I don't see enough space for a sleeping bag/tent/essentials. I'm assuming you mean that this would be used in conjunction with another noncamera backpack that would hold most of the other stuff...?


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Imaginos
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Oct 23, 2007 21:13 |  #3

slappy sam wrote in post #4179999 (external link)
So, how would you compare this pack to the lowepro nature trekker (if you are familiar with that one)? And you say that this pack would be good for overnights (if I read correctly), however I don't see enough space for a sleeping bag/tent/essentials. I'm assuming you mean that this would be used in conjunction with another noncamera backpack that would hold most of the other stuff...?

Whops. I don't think I made it clear in the conclusion. This is not a good overnight pack unless you're a minimalist and can make due with a bivybag and whatever food and water you can fit in edgewise.

I'll edit the review appropriately. Thanks for pointing it out.

Also: I've never used the Nature Trekker, so I can't really say.


Canon 1D Mark III | 16-35 2.8L II | 24-105 4L IS | 50 1.2L | 70-200 2.8L IS| 100 2.8 MACRO| 300 4L IS | Gitzo 3530S | Arca Z-1dp
http://www.canonfuse.n​et (external link) It's for my Canon.

  
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MillCreek
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Oct 23, 2007 23:27 |  #4

What a lovely and detailed review. I have a dedicated photo backpack (Tamrac Expedition Eight) and I am looking for more of a hybrid solution that will enable me to carry one body, two or three lenses and still have some unencumbered space to carry some hiking equipment. The thought of going into our local forested wilderness without the appropriate equipment and 10 essentials gives me the willies. I have been a serious backpacker for some 40 year now.

Any suggestions for such a backpack would be welcome.


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MillCreek
Snohomish County, Washington USA

  
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slappy ­ sam
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Oct 23, 2007 23:31 |  #5

Thanks for the speedy response! The way I see it there isn't really any camera backpack that will function for overnight trips (just one night, even so). If there is, I think it would be probably heavy, expensive, and poorly constructed compared to similar serious mountaineering packs from TNF, Gregory, Lowe Alpine, etc.

What would you do if you wanted to do a fairly lightweight overnight (just one night/2 days)? I'm thinking maybe I have to just get a real pack and deal with some sort of method for storing my camera gear, or possibly get a small bag to put inside the larger one. The only problem with this is that it makes the gear much less accessible.

Edit: Thinking about it more, all I really need for these trips is my XT, 10-22, and maybe my 50 1.4. With those 3 and my filters I could probably fit them all inside the top flap of a dedicated hiking backpack, or even some outer pocket. I would much rather do this than wear a waist belt thingy.


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Imaginos
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Oct 24, 2007 10:20 |  #6

MillCreek wrote in post #4180775 (external link)
I am looking for more of a hybrid solution that will enable me to carry one body, two or three lenses and still have some unencumbered space to carry some hiking equipment.

I'd take a look at the National Geographic line, or the Mountainsmith Borealis AT (external link). I've not used either myself, but it looks like there's camera storage on the bottom, with an open space on top. Depending on your needs, I'd suspect you can get a day or two of stuff in there, although a cold weather sleeping bag might be a challenge.

I'm sure there are more hybrids out there that I'm not aware of.


Canon 1D Mark III | 16-35 2.8L II | 24-105 4L IS | 50 1.2L | 70-200 2.8L IS| 100 2.8 MACRO| 300 4L IS | Gitzo 3530S | Arca Z-1dp
http://www.canonfuse.n​et (external link) It's for my Canon.

  
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olz
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Oct 24, 2007 10:22 |  #7

Theres also the Lowepro Rover series


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Kristian @ www.kindanatural.com (external link)
Fuji X-Pro1 | Fujinon XF18mmF2 R | Fujinon XF35mmF1.4 R

  
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olz
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Oct 24, 2007 10:27 |  #8

... but if you want to accomodate hiking equipment like stoves, fuel, food, sleepingbag tent etc., and also a camera with two lenses etc. then I would personally look into something like the Crumpler buckets and a regular backpack.

Personally i Use a big Lowe Saracen military pack, and a Lowepro toploader attached in front to the shoulder harness of the backpack. Acessories can be kept either inside the backpack or attached to the hip-belt of the backpack.


Cheers
Kristian @ www.kindanatural.com (external link)
Fuji X-Pro1 | Fujinon XF18mmF2 R | Fujinon XF35mmF1.4 R

  
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Imaginos
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Oct 24, 2007 10:27 |  #9

slappy sam wrote in post #4180795 (external link)
What would you do if you wanted to do a fairly lightweight overnight (just one night/2 days)? I'm thinking maybe I have to just get a real pack and deal with some sort of method for storing my camera gear, or possibly get a small bag to put inside the larger one.

I've done that quite a bit with my Lowepro slingsots stuffed into a larger pack and you're quite, it's a hassle to do anything. You basically have to drop you bag, dig for stuff, take the pictures, then put it all back together. So while it does work, it's less than ideal.

The two hybrids I mentioned in linked in post before this are probably quality gear. The National Geographic one, I'm guessing, is designed more for photographers by photographers and the camera gear probably takes priority; it probably better off on established trails. The Mountainsmith is designed more for mountaineers and is better off for crawling over/through/under stuff.


Canon 1D Mark III | 16-35 2.8L II | 24-105 4L IS | 50 1.2L | 70-200 2.8L IS| 100 2.8 MACRO| 300 4L IS | Gitzo 3530S | Arca Z-1dp
http://www.canonfuse.n​et (external link) It's for my Canon.

  
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slappy ­ sam
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Oct 24, 2007 10:59 |  #10

I don't understand why lowepro/lowe alpine would not come out with a pack that was essentially a true hiking pack (like lowe alpine) with a small camera section that would be easily accessible and provide adequate padding for a small amount of camera gear. There's really no bag like that, and it wouldn't be that hard to make.

In other news, I am trying to figure out how I would go about attaching a tripod to a dedicated hiking pack..


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FS: XT with 2 OEM batteries

  
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MillCreek
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Oct 24, 2007 11:08 |  #11

i think the Tamrac Adventure series comes close to a hybrid pack, especially the larger Adventure 9 for day trips. In concept, it is not dissimilar to the Mountainsmith Boreal. I own several Mountainsmith packs and I have always been very pleased with the quality and functionality.

A compromise that I have been doing is putting my camera gear into one of my smaller padded shoulder cases and then putting the case into one of my larger daypacks. That does make it a pain to access the camera gear, however. But a major concern of mine is protection from water, given our frequent and copious rainfall seven months of the year in the Seattle area. This is the major reason why I have not considered the National Geographic series. They are made of a cotton-hemp blend, and I could see that absorbing water like a sponge up here.


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MillCreek
Snohomish County, Washington USA

  
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Mcooper450
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Feb 06, 2008 13:25 |  #12

Great thread and review. Just as an update, the Sierra Trading Post has the Mountaintsmith Odyssey pack on sale for about $149.




  
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WorkingClassHero
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Feb 07, 2008 21:42 |  #13

Great review, thank you. Just bought one from Sierra Trading Post. Mountainsmith make great gear.


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