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As a photographer and writer whose primary subject is international fly-fishing, I admittedly bring rather unique gear demands to the table. My travel backpack must be ready to perform in conditions ranging from the tropical flats of Belize to the frigid glacial rivers of Iceland—and sometimes without a stop at home base between. In the past months I found myself bouncing from a fly-fishing photo shoot in Belize to photographing a bear hunt in Maine to then heading off to another fly-fishing shoot in Iceland, with virtually no layover time at home in between. My pack has to be versatile enough to spend long hours in the elements (often extremes of elements), keep expensive camera equipment secure and dry, and be comfortable enough I can manage it for 18-hour days in the field.
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It’s a tall order for a backpack, the one piece of equipment that goes everywhere with me. From long airport layovers sleeping on the ground to day-long boat rides to access a remote fishery to helicopter rides through the Amazon so we can fish the headwaters of a golden dorado river, the pack has to be able to hold up while remaining comfortable. And all the while, it must do the most important of tasks: keep cameras—the things that enable me to do my job—dry, secure, and safe while swimming rivers, hiking glacial cliffs, and navigating sketchy third-world airports and city streets.
In my 15-year career, I’ve tried a variety of field packs. Purpose-made camera bags. Shoulder bags. Sling packs. Hard cases. But the daily-driver on-assignment bag that’s emerged as the victor doesn’t come from the camera world. It won’t be found on the shelves in a camera store, or on most photographers’ packing lists. It has, however, been a clear winner for me: the YETI Panga 28L Waterproof Backpack.
YETI 28L Pagna Backpack, At a Glace
Weight: 3.9 lbs. | Dimensions: 12.5″ x 7″ x 20″ | Waterproof: Yes | Warranty: Three-year | Colors: 3
YETI Pagna Backpack Review: Doesn’t YETI Make Coolers?
Chances are you’ve heard of YETI by this point. At the very least you’ve seen their stickered logo on someone’s truck while sitting in traffic. The company, known for making hard-sided coolers and insulated drinkware, also makes a couple small lines of luggage and packs. One of these lines, the Panga Collection, includes duffels and a backpack crafted from thick, stiff, and remarkably heavy-duty nylon with TPU lamination, a combination the brand calls “ThickSkin™”. The resulting fabric is very waterproof and—a surprise favorite feature of mine—extremely difficult for pickpockets to cut through, lending a degree of protection on city streets and public transportation.
YETI has taken the same durability-focused (some might even say over-engineered) mindset that made their hard-sided coolers so legendary and brought it to packs and luggage. And while the price point is correspondingly high (the Panga Backpack retails for $300), for those with specific needs—such as the unusual demands of my career—the pack has been a surprising find.
But Is It Really Waterproof?
A key question I ask myself before all fishing jobs: do I have a way to keep the cameras truly dry and protected if we get caught in massive rain or if we have to ditch the boat and swim for shore (both of which have happened)? The burly, thick zipper on the Panga Backpack can be a bit of a beast to zip / unzip (you’ll get an arm workout, though it does get easier with use), but as long as it’s seated fully once closed, the seal is tight enough that if I squeeze the pack in an attempt to release the air trapped inside, nothing happens. Truly air- and water-tight. Weeks ago, the bag spent several 18-hour days in both heavy rain and high winds in Iceland, and it kept everything inside nicely dry. (The same could not be said for my old Gore-Tex rain jacket, but that’s a story for another day.)
The backpack is marketed as 100% waterproof and submersible, a designation of which I’m typically leery. But after a few years of using this bag in wet environments on various continents, I actually believe YETI’s claim. I’ve had to swim through both freshwater and saltwater with the bag on my back, cameras inside. (A hair-raising experience.) I made certain the zipper was locked down all the way, then said a few prayers before jumping in. But the gear emerged dry and safe, and my confidence in the Panga increased each time.
Carrying All The Things
Let’s talk organization. The pack itself is fairly stripped-down, with only a few lash points and handles on the outside, but YETI makes a couple accessories to assist in gear-carrying needs. I like the Rambler Bottler Holder ($40 for a size large, which fits a 36-oz. bottle), which easily clips onto the side. If I’m not using the holder for an actual water bottle, it doubles nicely as storage for sunglasses, gloves, or even lens caps.
The SideKick Dry Gear Case ($50) is another accessory I run on the bag. The little, easy-access pounch is made from the same waterproof ThickSkin material, and seals quickly with a magnetic strip and corresponding Velcro. It secures easily to the front of the bag, giving me easy access to wallet, phone, lens cloths, or whatever else I need in the field. Loops in the back also allow it to seat nicely on a belt, and more than once I’ve pulled it off the pack when I’m at a destination and used it as a purse / sling pack for runs into town.
Inside, the Panga Backpack is also fairly spartan. A sleeve pocket along the pack accommodates a tablet or laptop, though it’s not padded, so I’d keep electronics in a protective pouch. One zippered mesh pocket is in the front lid of the pack, offering secure storage for keys, lip balm, and all the little things. I added in the inside supportive structure from an old fishing boat bag into the inside of my Panga, which gives me a bit more support and organization for the cameras. The bag itself is plenty roomy at 28L (12.5” W x 7.0” D x 20.0” H) and fairly lightweight at 3.9 lbs. when empty. I’ve found I can comfortably carry two DSLR camera bodies, three lenses, and a drone / controller along with a fly box or two before maxing out the bag’s capacity.
And there’s one unexpected travel bonus. Many of my jobs are exploratory trips in third-world countries, and when the cameras are tucked away in the Panga, it doesn’t look like I’m carrying expensive camera gear. Seasoned thieves are often aware of the expensive camera bag brands and will target accordingly. (I always pull brand-name camera straps off my camera bodies for the same reason, replacing them with plain black.) The Panga bag doesn’t look cheap—sure—and it will likely draw an eye or two, but it doesn’t scream, “I’m carrying thousands of dollars of electronics in here.” Added to the fact that the straps are thick and hard to cut through and the zipper is hard enough to open that someone likely won’t get in there without you seeing or hearing them, it’s a bag I prefer to carry in high-theft environments.
Most of you likely won’t be carrying this bag through the Amazon or while wading waist-deep in Icelandic rivers casting to sea-run brown trout in the middle of a deluge. (Though I hope you are. Go do all the things!) Whether your backpack uses involve rainy-day bike commutes or long days on the lake with the family, the YETI Panga is worth a look if you need to keep things dry and comfortable. Thanks to the thickly-padded straps and optional waistbelt, the bag is comfortable enough to carry for long distances—something many packs I’ve tried in the past are decidedly not—and it’s plain enough in appearance to not draw too much attention while traveling. After 15 years of searching for the ideal backpack to suit my unusual set of demands, I finally might have found the one.
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