If you were to spend enough time on any photography forum, one of the manufacturers that is common to nearly every bag discussion is Crumpler. Crumpler is an Australian company that is still fairly obscure here in the United States, but has a world-wide following of extremely satisfied owners of Crumpler products. Their products have a reputation for durability and versatility. Many of their products are also quite unique – most of which cannot be compared to competitor’s products in any way, shape or form. It is perhaps this is the reason Crumpler’s customers are so rabid to share their opinions so widely, despite the manufacturers relatively small market share. But if you’ve ever known anyone that’s owned a Crumpler product, rarely would they consider anything else. It is for this reason that I just had to get my hands on one of their products to see if their bags really live up to all the hype. Crumpler USA was kind enough to provide me with a Crumpler Sinking Barge for review. Don’t let the name throw you off – Crumpler is also known for it’s creative naming structure. Some of the names of their products include: 5 Million Dollar Home, Industry Disgrace, Cork and Fork and Karachi Outpost. The names don’t offer much insight into their purpose, but they are memorable. The Sinking Barge, the bag that I’m reviewing here, is a large camera backpack.
The Sinking Barge is very closely related to its older brother, the Customary Barge. The Customary Barge is the larger of the two backpacks, but they are essentially designed the same. While my review is limited to my experience with the Sinking Barge, it’s fair to expect the same quality and observations of the Customary Barge. The bag consists of two main compartments: The lower compartment and the upper compartment. Within the upper compartment is a padded sleeve with a flap that can house a 15″ laptop or smaller. There is also another sleeve that could be home to a full-sized notebook or a few magazines. The lower compartment serves as your primary camera storage area. The lower compartment zippers on three sides to allow it to open like a hinge (there is webbing on either side to prevent to stop it from opening too far – contents will not fall out). This compartment ca be accessed with one strap on your shoulder.
The lower compartment is also home to two internal pockets, a larger one inside the face of the bag, and a mesh pocket that hangs from the underside of the upper compartment. Both pockets are zippered. Additionally, there are two elastic mesh pockets that can accommodate a drink bottle or just about anything else you’d like (I kept my Blackberry in one). Just under the colored flap on the face of the bag, there is also an additional zippered pocket for other miscellaneous things. Between the straps and above the backplate, just behind the neck, is another small pocket that houses the built-in rain cover. In rainy weather, you could pull the rain cover out of this pocket and it covers the entire bag. The rain cover is stitched in, so there’s no chance of loss. Otherwise, this pocket is not intended for anything except the rain cover.
The bag comes with two removable pods, one for each compartment. The upper compartment pod zippers closed, and is designed to accommodate an extra camera body or some extra lenses. The lower compartment pod is open on top. The bag also comes with a unique organization system consisting of four 28-inch “snake walls”, four padded “capping straps” and a number of velcro biscuits. I will speak more about the unique organization system later. In addition to all these goodies, the bag also comes with a tripod-carrying system that fastens through a loop on the side of the bag (the lower red patch shown in the illustration above) and includes two additional fastening straps. The lower piece of the system is reinforced and designed to carry two out of the three legs of a full-sized tripod. The tripod is then held in place with the additional two straps. The system doesn’t seem like much, but it it works incredibly well. The shoulder straps are fully adjustable and well padded. They feature a vertically and laterally adjustable chest strap with elastic reinforcement (nice touch). There is also a waist strap with padded hip bolsters for extra comfort on longer treks.
The most unique feature of the Sinking Barge is the unique divider system. The system, which is also available on many of Crumpler’s bags, is possibly the most ingenious system I’ve seen to date. Pictured to the right are all of the components of the divider system (plus the bottom part of the tripod carrying system, but lets ignore that for now). The inside of each of the pods is lined entirely with a fuzzy felt-like material that serves as a surface for the hook side of velcro to stick to. The “snake walls”, the long strips shown curled up at right, are also covered entirely with the fuzzy felt-like material. The system also includes four “capping straps”, the hourglass shaped straps that have velcro hook pads on either end. And finally, the system includes a number of velcro hook biscuits, oval shaped pads with velcro-hook component on both sides. The idea is that you can curve the snake walls around your equipment for a custom fit, and then you place the biscuits between the pod wall sand the snake walls at strategic places to hold everything in place. For additional strength, you can use the capping straps to fasten everything together. As you can imagine, there is no limit to what you can do with this system. As you could also imagine, the system has the potential to be aggravating. I really racked my brain trying to find a setup that worked for me. I went through several iterations before I settled on the perfect setup. But the beauty of this system is that once you find something that works for you, it’s absolutely perfect. I spoke to a number of Crumpler fans, and they all have different approaches. Some, like me, like to place the camera the lens down so you can grasp the camera easily and pull it out in shooting position. Others like to lay the camera on its side. One person even showed me a setup where their camera was facing lens-up. This is the only camera system I’ve ever come across that allows you to do so much.
My final setup, shown here at right, used two of the snake walls curled back on themselves to create four main compartments. To illustrate what I’ve done, the camera is not in place. The back-left compartment is where I kept my petal hood. The lower-left compartment is where I keep whichever lens isn’t mounted to the camera. For the right side, you’ll note I was able to curl part of the wall so that the inside was lower than the outside. With the camera in place, the lens (either of my lenses, even the 185mm zoom) fits in the lower-right compartment. The back-right compartment (where the snake wall is lower than the outside) is where the camera grip fits. It was also a nice place to tuck my SD Media case. With the camera in place, it fits nicely and the bag closes easily. Note that none of the compartments are of the same size, something you’d never be able to do with traditional divider systems. The way the system is set up, the corners also provide some extra storage for a spare lens bag, a couple of pens, and so on. I’m truly mesmerized by the system. Despite racking my brain for several days trying to figure out the perfect setup, the end result is truly phenomenal.
Did I say this thing was big? This thing is big. You wouldn’t believe what I was able to fit in this thing:
- Lower Compartment:
- Camera body #1: Nikon D80
- Camera body #2: Nikon N2000
- 18-135mm Zoom lens (mounted to Nikon D80)
- 50mm prime lens (mounted to Nikon N2000)
- 50mm prime lens
- Luma Loop camera sling strap
- 67mm petal lens hood
- Upper Compartment (within protective pod (shown)):
- Camera body #3: Canon AE-1
- 50mm prime lens (mounted to Canon AE-1)
- 80-200mm Zoom lens
- Canon 166A flash
- Auto advance module (for Canon AE-1)
- Other Items
- Manfroto 190XB Full-sized Tripod (on outside of bag in tripod holder)
- Cleaning kit (inside pocket, lower compartment)
- Filters – (2) 50mm, (1) 67mm, reverse mounting ring (mesh pocket, inside lower compartment)
- SD Media Case (inside pocket, lower compartment)
- Shutter release cable (mesh pocket, inside lower compartment)
- TV Output cables (mesh pocket, inside lower compartment)
- Letter sized notepad binder (laptop compartment)
- (2) magazines (not shown, pocket behind laptop compartment)
- Moleskine 5″ notebook with pens (upper compartment)
- Blackberry phone (I usually kept it in one of the drink pockets)
- Business cards (front pocket, below the orange panel)
As you can see, this bag can really fit a lot of gear. Everything shown here fits into the bag with all of the dividers, padding and straps in place. It’s important to point out, there’s no reason why I would actually carry all three of my camera bodies – not for what I do. I of course wanted to show everything that could fit into the bag as proof of concept. Many of you may have additional lenses or external flash units that would be able to be placed within the bag. But despite all of the gear, the bag was still quite comfortable while fully packed.
For the majority of my testing, I typically only carried the Nikon D80 and it’s associated lenses. The protective sleeve (shown) comes with it’s own set of customizable dividers, so when it was in the bag, I was able to protect and organize the Canon camera gear. But as I was not carrying that body most of the time, I usually kept the whole pod out of the bag. This was a great bonus feature – the pod bag is durable enough to be used as a storage bag when you’re not carrying it with you – a nice modular approach that helped me organize my gear. When the pod bag was not with me, the upper compartment yielded a lot of extra space. As this is early spring, the compartment was easily filled with my fleece for those temperature fluctuating days.
With everything that fit in this bag, you’d think this bag, the Sinking Barge, was the largest that Crumpler has to offer. But as I mentioned earlier Crumpler offers a larger bag with this design, the Customary Barge. The Sinking Barge is designed to fit a 15″ laptop. The larger Customary Barge is designed to carry a 17″ laptop and has a little extra space in the two larger compartments.
Despite the bags size, even when it was fully loaded, I was quite comfortable. Fully loaded with two camera bodies and their respective lenses (I left the Canon kit at home), I was comfortable during a short hike over the span of a few hours. The back plate is designed in a way that you actually get some airflow to your back. Perhaps not the best back plate design that I’ve seen, but certainly well above average. The shoulder straps are comfortable, fully adjustable and the hip strap – often an afterthought – was quite comfortable and supportive on many of my shorter hikes.
With the bag on my shoulder, I had little trouble accessing my camera equipment. The first few days, the bag had a bit of a stiff feel to it, so opening the camera compartment proved troublesome. But that quickly dissipated within a week as I used the bag more. After that, I was easily able to pull my camera out of the bag without risking the loss of any of my equipment. Part of this was finding a good balance with the divider system – some of the setups I tried didn’t lend well to accessing the camera while on the shoulder. Clearly, this is a matter of the user’s setup and preference. I found that the bottle pockets were in a nice place. As I mentioned, I kept my BlackBerry phone in one pocket and occasionally had a drink in the other. I was able to access both of them with a backwards reach while both straps were on my shoulders.
Durability is not an issue with this bag. There is no question that it’s durable. I had this bag with me on a few of my mountain excursions on poorly groomed trails and dense wooded areas. The bag got poked with sticks, smacked against trees – I even fell once with the bag on my back. The bag – and all the equipment inside – was marked up a bit and got a little dirty, but it shows no signs of rips, tears or wear otherwise.
There are only two main faults I have with this bag. First, there isn’t a lot of built-in small pockets to help organize things like pens or keys or so on. There were a few spaces left in either pod after the dividers were in place. But nothing along the inside walls of the bag. For many, this is likely not a major concern – one could keep such items floating within one of the larger pockets. But I like an organized bag. The other nuisance is a bit of a pet peeve for me: Tow Strap. The tow strap is, in my opinion, the main carrying point when the bag is not on your shoulder. Especially for a bag like this, it is sometimes easier to carry (or tow) a bag through crowded spaces or over short distances. Some of the other bags I’ve evaluated have nicely padded tow straps that are comfortable to use, easy to grasp and generally well designed. I was very disappointed in the tow strap offerings of the Sinking Barge – especially since every other aspect of the bag is so well thought out. The tow strap on the Sinking Barge is literally just a piece of strap webbing stitched into the seam between the shoulder straps. It’s small, uncomfortable and it puts strain on your hand if carrying it for just a short amount of time. To add insult to injury, it’s completely unusable when the rain cover is in use. The rain cover pocket is just below the tow strap on the back-plate side of the bag. When in use, it completely covers the tow strap. I admit that for many of you, this seems like a trivial item. But I am quite aware of the fact that many of you will also share my concern. Equipment bags should have a comfortable tow strap.
I would say that the Crumpler Brand certainly lives up to every expectation I had. The bag is durable, sturdy and customizable beyond belief. Though this is a large bag, you’d never think it would be able to fit so much gear – safely – by appearances alone. But you really can fit a ton of gear in here. As I aim to carry my camera with me daily, this bag is perhaps a bit too large for my daily use. But this is an excellent bag for my weekend trips or my day trips for the sake of my photography. On such trips, I tend to take more gear, and this bag certainly has the ability to carry it all. But on a day-to-day basis – when I rarely carry more than my Nikon D80 with a mounted lens and perhaps an extra lens, this bag is a bit too large.
This bag is most appropriate for someone with a fair amount of equipment or at least a need for some extra space. If you have a reasonable sized laptop, the Sinking Barge has one of the better and more secure laptop compartments I’ve seen. If you have a full-size tripod that you like to carry with you, this is the first bag I’ve evaluated that has a tripod system that works for full-size tripods.
Bottom line, I would certainly recommend this product for anyone who has the need for a backpack of this size.
The Crumpler Sinking Barge is available at Amazon.com (about $275 USD as of this writing)
Things we liked
- The fully customizable divider system (better than any you’ve ever seen)
- Tripod carrying system (for full-sized tripods)
- Internal laptop compartment (not a separate compartment for security)
- Huge zipper pulls
- It doesn’t look like a camera bag
- Integrated rain cover system
- Chest strap is adjustable laterally and vertically, plus it’s got an elastic loop for flex and comfort
- Elastic pockets for water bottle is among the best we’ve seen
Things we didn’t like
- Lacking internal organization for small items like pens, glasses, etc.
- Uncomfortable Tow strap
- Tow Strap is unusable with rain cover in place (Note: As suggested by reader, Ben (Big Bad Benny), one could thread the rain cover through the tow strap – but while this is an inconvenience, I still consider this a con.)