The weekly Creative Critique—Live continues this week with our 4th webinar this Thursday, April 23rd…
Earlier this year Gura Gear released the Uinta, a new backpack that differed from the innovative design of their other bags in several ways. As a member of the Gura Gear Pro Team, I got a chance to try the backpack as soon as it was released. However, rather than rush to write a review, I decided to live with the pack for a while and get a better sense of its strengths and weaknesses.
Over the past six months, I’ve used it extensively on local hikes in the Hudson Valley, urban trips to NYC, a 10 day trip to the Smoky Mountains, and a two week trip to Moab, Utah. On both of these latter trips I was leading workshops, but also had opportunities to hike and photograph on my own. I carried it through airports, desert trails, NYC subway, rain soaked hikes to waterfalls, and mountain bike rides close to home. I wanted to write a review based on long-term usage as opposed to just trying it out in my backyard – that’s not the real world. Out in the field over extended periods of time is the only place where you can get a real sense of how gear performs under demanding situations.
It’s a crowded market out there for camera backpacks, but I hope this review gives you a better perspective on whether it’s the right backpack for you.
Design and Configuration
Whereas the excellent Kiboko and Bataflae use the dual butterfly opening for easy access to gear, the new Uinta is based on a modular concept. Using removable “modules” or compartments, the Uinta is a camera backpack that adapts to your needs, whether that’s carrying camera gear only, or additional items such as clothing, a laptop and accessories, or a hydration bladder. Maybe you just want a low profile bag to carry a smaller mirror-less camera on an urban trip to a museum or park. In all of these scenarios, the Uinta is up to the task.
The main feature of the Uinta is its ability to be configured depending on your particular needs. It uses removable modules that you can choose based on the size and quantity of gear you want to carry. There are medium and small sized modules, and each occupies roughly half the bag giving you lots of configurable options. The bag has two openings on the back (shoulder strap side) which provide access to either the top or bottom module areas. There are also two zippers on the front which open to the main compartment, and a second area for carrying smaller accessories like maps, notebooks, batteries, and other personal items.
Lots of organizational features are included, like an extra zippered pocket and several smaller pockets for things like a phone, memory and business cards, and car keys. There are two stretch-mesh side pockets that you can reach into while wearing the pack, with straps to keep things from falling out – a very nice technical detail. The bottom of the pack is reinforced with Cordura for added durability.
Because the main openings are on the back, you can actually access your camera while wearing the bag. Simply remove the shoulder straps, rotate the bag to the front of your body, and open the pockets. This is great when standing in water or mud – not a good place to put your pack down. The bag includes a padded sleeve which fits a 17” laptop, though I used it more often with an iPad Air.
There’s also a dual-use tripod holder/hydration pocket attachment that attaches to the front of the bag using four adjustable straps. While I didn’t use a hydration bladder with it (preferring to carry water bottles in the side pockets,) I did carry a tripod extensively , and it worked perfectly for me. The weight of the tripod is centered along the back of the bag, which is where I prefer it, and it was easy to remove the tripod when needed. More importantly, because the bag can be opened from either side, it means I can get my camera out without having to remove the tripod.
One added benefit of having the hydration bladder separate from the main bag is that inevitably when filling and using a hydration bladder, things can (and will) get wet, and keeping the backpack and camera gear dry is always a good thing.
Construction and Comfort
Gura Gear products have always emphasized lightweight, strong construction and the Uinta continues that tradition nicely. It’s made of a tough material that withstood lots of abuse in wet and dry conditions over many outings. It has a nice matte black finish with some gray areas along the side and bottom, giving it an attractive stealth like appearance. There’s a handle on the top for easy lifting into the trunk of the car or overhead compartment of an airplane. And yes it is carry-on compliant on all commercial airlines. It includes weather sealed zippers with large white latches making opening and closing the pockets fairly easy. That’s something you learn to appreciate when working in the field under less than ideal conditions. It includes a nice rain cover that is easy to fit over the entire bag when the weather gets a little damp.
Regardless of how well a backpack is designed, it needs to be comfortable on the trail over many miles. A lightweight, breathable harness is highly adjustable so that you can find the most ideal fit for your body. The shoulder straps are comfortable without being too padded, and the wide waist strap puts the weight on the hips where it belongs, and includes multiple attachment loops for accessories. The mesh backpad allows air to circulate over your back adding to the comfort on long or warm hikes.
I’ve used the Uinta almost exclusively over the past 6 months, and while it won’t replace my Bataflae, it has become my favorite all-around backpack. In terms of carrying the most amount of gear specifically for a photo shoot, the Bataflae rules. Its ease of access, deep compartments, and beefy padding are still better than any other bag I’ve tried, the Uinta included. Its designed to do one thing really well.
However the Uinta is more like a “chameleon” of bags. On many of my hikes, I like to bring extra clothing, food, and water, and just using one module lets me use the other part of the bag for those items. I found the Medium Pro module best suited for full size DSLRs and lenses. The Small Pro module handles smaller DSLRs as well, especially mirror-less cameras like my Olympus E-M1. I carry the E-M1 with 4 lens comfortable in the small module, leaving lots of room for extras. When traveling, I use both modules to carry both camera systems, then remove gear I don’t need to lighten the load on the trail.
On workshops, I mostly used the small module in the bottom area, leaving the top half of the bag for clothing, water, a first aid kit, maps, and other items I carry when teaching. I also use this configuration when I’m mountain biking on the trails or riding around town.
In urban settings like a zoo or museum, I found the rear pockets easy to open and access in tight quarters, and made carrying a pro camera setup much easier than in the past. And because it doesn’t look like a camera bag, I felt more at ease about theft and security. In fact that’s probably what I like most about the Uinta, it’s utilitarian look and feel, combined with cutting edge features and design.
No backpack is perfect, and the Uinta is no exception. While some may complain about the lack of padding, and indeed it’s less than other bags, I think the compromise is worth the weight savings. Whether that’s a weakness or not depends on what you need. I also wished for more individual pockets on the outside of the bag for things like the rain cover, filters, and other accessories. And the laptop sleeve might benefit from a strap to keep a laptop from sliding out.
The Uinta with all accessories retails for $398 and that’s not exactly pocket change. But considering the value it offers, its money well spent. And if you look around, you can find attractively priced bundles online.
Reviewing a backpack for quality and features, and recommending it to others are two different things. For me a backpack needs to perform well in the field under varied conditions, and in that respect the Uinta performed great. The modular design, while not new to camera bags, is simple to use and configure. Since the modules are available separately, you can buy just what you need and add to it over time. And when not using both modules, the Uinta compresses down to fit its contents, which for me works great especially in urban settings.
Is the Uinta for you? That depends on what you want and need from a backpack. Is it better than GuraGear’s other bags? No, just different. It offers a great combination of lightness, versatility, and comfort, and most importantly gets out of the way when you’re ready to get creative with your camera.
Watch this short 5 min video about the Uinta and how it compares to other Gura Gear bags.
As I mentioned earlier, I am very honored to be a part of the Gura Gear Pro Team. Having said that, I would not have committed to using this bag for as long as I did if I didn’t like it right from the start. I don’t need a free backpack, what I need is a backpack that makes my job easier. I’m grateful for the fact that I can afford to buy any bag I want. What I choose to use is based on personal preference. This is just a long way of saying that when I recommend gear, it’s because I use it myself. IF you ever see me on the trails, or around town, I’ll be using Gura Gear bags.