In Search of a Unicorn

In Search of a Unicorn

I’ve been plagued by nagging injuries most of my adult life—hand and wrist problems, bulging discs in my lower back, and a troublesome knee that surgery only kinda fixed. For several years, I have been limited to carrying only backpacks with frames and waist straps, or to carrying almost negligible weight in a small day pack.

The scope of my activities has also changed, which has impacted my ability to create images. In the United States, there are several iconic spots you can drive right up to. Balanced Rock in Arches National Park is visible from the road. You park your car at Tunnel View in Yosemite. Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, and Horseshoe Bend in AZ require less than a mile of walking. Multnomah Falls in Oregon has a parking lot at the base of the falls. Maroon Bells in Colorado is 100 feet or so from the parking lot. Bixby Bridge in Big Sur has a pull-off at each end. I guess, what I’m saying is that almost all national parks (that I have been to, at least) are built to be accessible. Beyond that, several well-known landscape spots outside of the national parks systems—possibly due to demand—have some facilities to accommodate tourism, including parking lots and short hikes.

So, what is the one commonality between all of those spots I have listed? None of them are near me.

Where I live, in the New England region of America, the closest “National” anything is the White Mountain National Forest in Vermont. It’s a lovely drive through a pine forest on your way from A to B. The only pull offs are for two waterfalls–a 35 foot horsetail named Moss Glen and a swimming hole called Warren Falls. While lovely, they’re a far cry from the iconic status of Multnomah or Tunnel View. Cape Cod National Seashore and White Mountains National Forest are my next closest options at 3.5 hrs, and then Acadia National Park at 6+ hours away. Of those, only Acadia has anything resembling recognizable views that don’t require significant amounts of hiking.

In short, landscape photography in my area is best accomplished by the able bodied. The greatest views usually require hiking, and the payoff will almost always fall short of iconic. Now, I don’t mind the challenge. Creating a unique portfolio of images has always appealed to me. But with my accrued injuries, I need to get creative with my kit, and be realistic about my limitations. A nine-mile hike is a rare occurrence. A four-mile hike with significant elevation changes will take me all day. I only carry a tripod if I know there will be low light or water. And all of those require a backpack with a frame and waist strap.

For shorter or flatter hikes, carrying just the camera body, a 50mm and a petite prime 28mm in a lightweight day pack seems to work for me. I’m also able to carry the day pack and light kit while mountain biking, which has afforded me new opportunities to explore views I previously couldn’t reach due to distance. Unfortunately, the day pack I rely on has no frame and a nominal waist strap. However, it fits my gear, such that it is. I have two other day packs with beefier waist and chest straps, but a full water bladder uses up most of the space within the pack. My camera, lenses, and padding to keep them safe simply do not fit.

I’ve come to the conclusion that finding a perfect backpack for the activities I enjoy and the injuries I live with is like trying to find a unicorn.

In February, we took a mountain biking trip to Utah, and I brought my trusty “biggish” day pack and limited kit. We explored several state and national parks, and spent a few days mountain biking in both St. George and Moab. Everything about it was great. Well, everything except my neck and shoulder, that is. When I got back to Connecticut, I saw a doctor for my sudden onset of unexplained shoulder pain. I’ve been in physical therapy ever since.

Now, let’s fast forward to May. I had a trip to Italy planned—my first overseas trip since the pandemic hit. Holidays are never long enough, but we jammed a lot in our short itinerary and I intended to photograph it all. Historical sites? The rolling hills of Tuscany? Waterfall hikes? Yes, yes, and yes! But with my newest injury, I certainly wasn’t going to risk carrying anything on my shoulders for long. So, the hunt for my newest unicorn began.

I needed a bag that could carry my small kit, with the option for a tripod should I need it. I wanted it to be non-descript, so I wouldn’t be targeted while walking through busy cities known for pick-pocketing. If I was targeted, I wanted it to be secure, with padding and straps that were difficult to cut, and zippers that would be difficult to open without me knowing. Weather-resistance was a must. Comfortable straps were a must. Since it was the only pack I intended to carry, space for money, passport, and an international driver’s license would be helpful. And most important, I needed to be able to keep the weight off of my bad shoulder.

Backpacks were off the table, so I looked at slings. Even carrying something on my “good” shoulder bothers me, though, so when I discovered Peak Design’s Everyday Sling had the option to wear it around the waist, I swear, a choir of angels started singing Hallelujah somewhere in the middle distance.

My first order of business was to try one of the bags on. I found a store that had some in stock, and did test fits between the 3L and 6L bags. The 3L was sleek and light, and probably could have fit my kit. It looked almost identical to a bum bag, so probably wouldn’t immediately tip off potential pick-pockets as to how much expensive gear I carried. As far as fashion, the ash gray looked damn nice. It ticked all of the unicorn boxes, except the ability to carry my international driver’s license. (Why do they make those things so big, anyway??)

The 6L bag didn’t look quite as nice, but it had space for an 11 in tablet…or an obnoxiously large translated driver’s license. The sling was too big to look like any other bum bag, but functionally it met all of my other criteria. In the end, I chose the 6L sling in midnight blue. I would have preferred ash, but blue was what they had in the store—I figured it would be easier to return the bag and find something else before my trip, should I need to, if I bought the bag in-store. This probably will not come as a surprise, but being a camera bag, it was expensive. I spent $120 on the sling, but figured my health was worth the investment.

I stuffed the Everyday Sling to the brim. It carried my Nikon d810 camera body, 50 and 28 mm lenses, two back-up camera batteries, two back-up memory cards, my mobile phone, spare N95 (FFP) face masks, USB charging cord and power converter, spare battery pack for my phone, chapstick, hand sanitizer, all of my money, cards and travel documents. In other words, everything I needed to schlep around Italy.

The Peak Design Everyday Sling is made of weather-proofed canvas, with great padding (both for the camera and the wearer), heavy duty straps, and zippers with an anti-theft feature. In my opinion, the strap’s clip is just difficult enough to deter thieves or and prevent accidental release, without being a hardship to use. Without any gear, the bag weighs a whopping 0.78kg (1.72lb). It came with dividers to keep my lenses and camera body separated from each other, and the flex fold design (the dividers fold into a shelf as needed) saves space while still keeping my gear safe. The pros column? Check, check, check!

Now, for the things I didn’t love about this bag. First, the front pocket is tight. Too tight to be functional for much, to be honest. The front pocket is where I stored the spare masks, charging cords, and phone’s battery pack. That’s all I could reasonably fit in there. If you have large hands, or any sort of finger mobility or coordination issues, I think this pocket would be useless.  I hope the next generation of these bags fixes this design flaw.

Second, because it is a small bag, I needed to take off my lenses every time I put the camera back. That seems obvious, right? I purposely chose a bag small enough to wear around my waist, so compromises must be made. However, if you’re the type of person who prefers to store the camera with lens attached, then you’ll likely be limited to just your camera body and one lens. Since everyone works differently, I felt this was important to mention.

Third, I’m not entirely sold on the detachable tripod straps. I have used the straps to carry both an extra coat and a tripod (not at the same time) and in both instances, the straps seem just a little too far apart. This is a major design change from the first generation of the Everyday Sling, and I hope they revisit it in the future. I think it can be improved upon.

Finding a good camera bag really is like finding a unicorn. Everyone’s needs and expectations for their gear are different. While I wouldn’t take this sling on a 10 mile backpacking trip, for a small kit and someone with significant back, neck and shoulder issues, this pack was both comfortable and functional. I wore it for several miles of both city-walking (with significant elevation change in some cases), and hiking through the woods (with minimal elevation changes). The sling excelled in both cases. It felt secure on my hips, distributed the weight well, and did not rub or bruise me. Despite the minor issues listed above, I would recommend this pack to anyone looking for either a sling or waist bag.

By Shannon Kalahan