Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Review of the Naneu K4L Adventure Series travel backpack

Before I begin the review, I’ll rewind back to covering a few of my first impressions and what I look for in a backpack:
  1. Materials used
  2. Workmanship
  3. Fit
  4. Function
  5. Areas of product strength
  6. Areas of product need

In September 2009 I spent 10 days in Utah, scouting/hiking and prepping for 2 of my photography workshops. I spent the majority of time at close to 6000’ elevations around south-central Utah.

  1. Top quality ballistic nylon – this material will easily give you years of hard use although I am not unusually rough with my gear.
  2. No concerns on the tripod holder and the heavy zippers used. Excellent stitching can be found throughout the construction of the K4L.
  3. Being taller and wider in the shoulders, it’s an excellent fit. Even someone smaller will not have an issue. Extremely comfortable straps even with a full complement of gear (see below).
  4. This backpack can carry a surprisingly healthy amount of gear! I weigh all of my luggage/gear for airline travel so there are no surprises using an Ultimate Scale. It’s capable of readout weights within 10 grams and a zero/tare function. In the upper compartment I packed the following: my 200/4 macro in a padded pouch, flash, extension cable, diffuser, 5 ND Grad filters (two 4×5 and three 4×6) in the zippered pouch + adapter ring, Cokin Z filter holder plus multiple smaller items. I added the Wimberley Plamps and diffuser discs into the side zippered compartments. There is still enough room to anticipate inclement weather – it will handle my raingear plus a polar fleece and still have room left over. In the lower compartment I packed one DSLR w/grip + 28-75/2.8 attached, 12-24, 50-200, Slik AF2100 head and spare batteries. Turns out where I was headed presented a great deal of landscape opportunities and very few macro opportunities, so for the second trip I left the heavier 200/4 macro at home.
  5. Shoulder straps and waist straps are very comfortable on the K4L – even with heavier loads.

The camera compartment is large and can be an issue for carry on dimensions on a CRJ or Embraer RJ (regional jet) or turboprop aircraft. The shoulder straps could use some materials or inserts where they attach to the backpack itself to prevent twisting when putting on the backpack. However, this is minor and perhaps a future model of the K4L will address this.

The backpack with all of the above (and a fair bit more) plus a 15.4” Dell E6400 laptop weighed in at 33lbs. For reference the K4L weighs in at approximately 5.5lbs. The loaded K4L was surprisingly well balanced yet light, considering the total weight. As surmised in my first impressions, the heaviest part of the load is at or near your waist. That weight distribution translates into little or no back strain, even with a tripod attached. The tripod slopes in towards the top of the pack so the heaviest part (base plate + tripod head) rests just below the top of the pack. This also ensures your head doesn’t get a hard knock if you jump up onto another surface. That was a common complaint with tripod carrying packs that center mount in a vertical position on the back surface of the pack.

Without a doubt, this travel backpack was much more comfortable carrying a full complement of landscape gear than anything previously used.

Caveats for the airline traveler:
Canadair Regional Jets (CRJ) and Embraer Regional Jets is the mainstay of smaller airports and lower traffic routes. All of those smaller jets/turboprops have smaller overhead luggage compartments. Therefore you must store the K4L under the seat. With your laptop stowed in the K4L, it works reasonably well due to the wedge shape of the backpack, although a min. of 2-3 inches sticks out beyond the back of the seat. That’s a close call – just once in 4 trips I was asked about plane side checking of the backpack. After a quiet conversation with the attendant and informing him of it holding camera gear, he agreed to stow it in the attendant’s locked closet just aft of the cockpit/cabin/galley area. It will not fit in the frames used for dimension checks, so be advised. I’ve never been asked nor challenged about this, but if the attendant or luggage handler at plane side ever put down their foot that could be a problem.

Of note, when I gave a presentation on my Utah trip to the photo society in early November, there was a significant amount of interest in the K4L and the newly arrived K5 that Naneu was so kind to ship to me on short notice. I believe it’s important to have packs that are compliant with the overhead luggage dimensions of the RJ series aircraft. I also let the audience know that I’m working with Bombardier Aerospace to confirm all dimensions and hopefully come up with the under seat storage capacity and hopefully come to a solution on this matter in the future. There was a high level of interest amongst the attendees for a future pack with this compatibility on regional jets.

Using the K4L in Utah:
Without a doubt, I have no regrets using this backpack for hiking at altitude. I was carrying close to 38lbs at altitude (6,000 feet) and I was comfortable with this setup. Since then I have lightened my selection a bit by being very strict on the lenses, etc. and upgrading to a new Gitzo GT3541XLS carbon fiber tripod (thank you NatureScapes!). The padding is very comfortable, has a reasonably good amount of airflow (even with no breeze) across the back when the pack is loaded up. The K4L is quite comfortable to walk/hike with a full with and very well balanced once you have cinched and adjusted the shoulder and waist straps correctly.

The access method for the K4L to the camera compartment is relatively straightforward: it is a zippered section with a heavy duty buckle to reduce strain on the heavy duty zippers. That is a very nice touch if you are traveling in a vehicle: the buckle can be quickly attached without having to close the zippers immediately, yet you can secure the camera compartment quickly this way. I would not recommend using only the buckle and not closing the zippers when carrying the K4L though. There is another zippered compartment outside the width of the camera compartment, which can be used to hold smaller items such as batteries, memory cards, business cards or any similar sized item. That includes mesh pouches to simplify organizing this compartment. This is specific to transport in the vehicle, nothing more. The laptop compartment is very well padded and can hold a 17” wide screen laptop quite nicely. My 15.4” laptop had plenty of room to spare.

The D-rings on the shoulder straps are very useful for attaching keys, compass and smaller items yet keeping them readily accessible. Nicely done and well thought out. The upper compartment is also readily accessed, as are the side pockets. I liked the zippered pouch inside the upper compartment in which I put my GND filters – very secure and against the padded back. The water bottle holder is the default location for storing the rain cover for the pack when it was received. I never ended up needing the cover but the holder is only suitable for the smaller bottles. I had a mesh bottle holder that I attached and it proved to be used regularly, especially is the drier climate at altitude in Utah.

At both the Utah trip presentation to the local photo society and the workshops, several of the participants were very interested in the K4L. I gave them the opportunity to try it on with the normal gear load and they were pleasantly surprised at the level of comfort. My understanding is that two of them will be giving up their current packs for the Naneu K4L when pursuing landscape photography. The K4L is now firmly entrenched as my pack of choice when I’m headed out for landscape/hiking photography.

I'll get some images uploaded when time permits!