Updated: Mar 28, 2020
In the market for a new outdoor adventure bag that is as at home in the wildernesses as it is in the city? Join me as I review the Shimoda Designs Explore 40 bag and see why it's my new favourite bag.
In a Nutshell
Incredibly water resistant
Well thought out use of space and access points
Fast and smooth zippers
Well thought out handle placements
Fantastic stiff modular dividers
Gets very hot and sweaty when hiking
No space for water bottle
Water bladder tube opening too small
Expensive bag + ICU's
A low range of colours
* Taken from Shimoda Designs website
A reliable camera bag is a staple piece of equipment in any photographer’s arsenal, and like cameras, there is an overwhelming amount of options to choose from.
Many bags claim to 'do it all', others specialise in a niche area like outdoor or street bags, but a lot seem to place emphasis on aesthetics over functionality. Then there's the small factor of price. Professional grade photography equipment is undoubtedly expensive no matter what industry you are pursuing and, there is always something else to purchase. Alas, it's rarely affordable.
Unfortunately for outdoor photographers, the extreme nature of their craft demands the highest-grade materials, blazing functionality and a weight that's suitable for multi-day expeditions pushing the price of bags in excess of $500.
Hint: Discount code and affiliate located at the bottom ;)
Personally, I consider this a small price to pay for peace of mind knowing that my gear is protected from the elements, I can carry the maximum amount of equipment with the minimal amount of physical strain. The Shimoda Explore 40 sits at the pointy end of the price spectrum with the Australian RRP for my kit totalling a healthy $815.
Medium accessory kit - $79
Mirrorless Core Unit - $149
Small Core Unit - $99
Webbing Straps - $39
Literally every bag manufacturer out there totes their bag as being the best designed, with the smartest usage of space. At face value, they all appear to deliver the goods, with many sporting modular designs and fancy hidden compartments. But the truth of the matter is the more inserts and hidden flaps you put inside a space, the less space there actually is for gear.
As an adventure bag goes the Explore 40 ticks pretty much all the boxes in terms of ease of use, storage compartment layouts and aesthetics. Let's face it, if the bag is ugly, what are the chances that you'll want it strapped to your back?
What particularly drew me to this bag was its carry-on luggage compliancy, narrowed down to the nearest mm. I know because I stuffed it full and it slipped perfectly into the overhead locker of a tiny domestic plane. My friends, which was 'carry-on' compliant, simply would not fit. Partly due to the front pockets allowing much extra room for stuffing gear into. Even with my jacket slipped into the front of the Explore 40 along with a small rubber bottle of water, the dimensions remained perfect.
Aesthetically the Explore 40 retains the outdoors style look with the somewhat shiny waterproof material and various compression straps, however, when all straps are tightened and slipped into the holders, the bag looks slim and far less bulky than many of its competitors. Particularly useful when you're hauling large amounts of camera gear and need the bag to exude lightness. It really does have the appearance of a much lower volume bag.
At the time of writing, there were currently two colours to choose from, Blue Nights and Sea Pine. Australians are limited to Blue Nights at this stage, which was fine with me as this is the colour I wanted.
It would be great to see a broader range of colours available, particularly a black model. I actually love the Blue Nights Colour as it is far less in your face as my bright Orange F-Stop bag which was ideal for mountain use, not so great when I wanted to remain discrete in some dodgy locations.
Darker colours are also preferable when dragging bags through dust and dirt, and I found that only the lightest of dirt colours would be clearly visible.
When I read that the Explore 40 was designed to be free standing, I felt a sudden surge of excitement. Anyone who travels frequently can attest to the anger and frustration of owning a bag that falls over without support. Quite simply, It's a pain in the ass. I found this freestanding feature particularly useful through India, where the ground was literally covered in human faeces, and I simply refused to lay the bag on its front.
The bag features numerous compression straps that allow for external items to be attached to the outside. By no means, a game changer for the industry but, their placement and ability to have the loose ends tucked away means for a clean and sleek appearance.
The addition of a side carry handle was a subtle yet welcome feature of the bag. As a short person, picking up and moving the pack via the top handle can be cumbersome. Now, I can turn the bag on its side and carry it like a duffle.
The Explore 40 features the smoothest zippers I have ever used on a bag. This is particularly impressive because they are also weather sealed thanks to YKK. I was concerned their lightness would affect their durability when closing with a fully packed compartment. No such issue.
The rear access zipper, in particular, is fast and robust. I was used to the sluggish feel of my F-Stop zipper, but now I can whip open the back in no time.
There were a few concerns online that the book-style rear access flap would be a problem with gear falling out and rolling away as opposed to the flap attached from the base. I, too, had my concerns as I've often picked the bag up without the flap being fully closed on my F-stop and luckily, the lenses fell between the flap and the ICU. If you accidentally do this on the Explore 40, you may end up smashing gear.
I guess it just means that we should be taking that extra few seconds to check whether the flap is completely done up before relocating the bag. In all honesty, it never became an issue and kind of made me slow down more.
One of my biggest gripes with my F-Stop bag was the lack of smaller organised pockets and compartments. The lid pockets would fill up with items that just rumbled around loosely, and if the top of the bag were full, these items would be squashed upwards with the risk of impact damage, same too with the side pockets that were awkwardly shaped.
Shimoda has designed the rear top pocket to be rectangular in size and can accommodate the large accessory case perfectly inside. I chose the medium case to pair with the bag and found its incredibly useful to store batteries, circular filters, cables, radios and all other arrays of accessories that are needed mid-shoot. Having a clear front and back meant I could locate items on the fly and with its carry handle, I found I would take it out and head off without the need to carry my entire bag. It can also be hung off the side of a tripod if needed.
The top middle pocket is somewhat challenging to explain in terms of its design and functionality, but I found its particularly useful to store a rain jacket and other stuffable items in as it can be expanded or compressed internally depending on what you have inside the read top pocket. When using the shallow core units, I found that some items could slip down behind them, so I found its best to store stuffable or thin items here.
The front pocket of the bag is another excellent feature that is super handy to stuff jackets and other narrow items in. I did find that I would be fishing around for items at the bottom of the bag because of its depth, but it never became a significant concern. This pocket is wide enough to slip my 15inch MacBook Pro + UAG case inside, but I'm a little hesitant to do so as there is no padding or protection provided by the bag here.
My least favourite feature of the bag
For most of India, I found myself carrying a 2Ltr water bladder inside the inner front pouch. It's never ideal carrying a heavyweight so far from your back, but unfortunately, rear access design bags all seem to strike this issue.
There is a small hook to hang your water bladder inside the compartment yet for some strange reason, Shimoda has not included a Velcro tab to hang it from. I ended up improvising and using a D-Shackle which worked effectively but caused the zipper to pull down and become difficult to close. I believe some rigidity of the internal materials here would prevent this from occurring. The next issue is that the narrow opening to feed the valve and hose through is so tight that it's near impossible without squashing the valve down and release some water. I'd also love to see a small little clip on the right shoulder strap that holds the tube in place so that it doesn't flap around as well.
The bag features a side access pocket that's useful for taking a lens or camera out of the bag without actually putting it down on the ground. I that actually never used this feature, not because it wasn't functional, but I've become a creature of habit and prefer to stuff the camera in from the back. I would also think that it could be challenging to use this with a gripped body and lens attached as its too wide for the small core unit to fit side-on.
Each shoulder strap features a unique little set of pockets that I used almost every single day. I wish more bags had them! The right strap sports a lovely oversized elasticated mesh pocket that you can stuff all manner of snacks, radios, thin drink bottles and nick-knacks inside. The left strap features a beautiful little zipped pocket that is designed for your phone, but I could never actually fit my Samsung Galaxy Note 9 inside so it became a storage for hand sanitizer, lip balm, and money.
One of the most critical features of any bag regardless of function is its ability to carry heavy loads without undue strain on the body. Weight distribution is primarily spread through the use of rigid aluminium internal framing, comfortable shoulder straps and above all and dedicated waist and hip strap. All of which this bag features. The Explore 40 has a thin but super comfortable waist strap that really hugs in the right places and alleviates much of the strain from the shoulders. The tightening buckle is designed so that you can pull it tight in a natural direction inwards rather than the awkward outward pull design that requires pecs of steel.
The back support design is pretty good with a raised lumbar cushion and vertical channel that I'm guessing, is to aide in air flow. I found that I would sweat a lot against the stiff material, even in moderate temperatures.
Each strap has a tiny elasticated mesh pocket for stuffing wrappers and other small items like tissues inside. No more excuses for throwing rubbish on the trail people.
No two people are built the same and Shimoda has taken this into consideration with its adjustable height shoulder straps. You can simply unzip the pocket covering the Velcro and move the straps up or down according to your back size.
Their website will give you more information regarding the guidelines here.
Last but not least, the Explore 40 has hands down the best buckle clips I have ever used, on any bag. Remember those fidgety times you were trying to pinch and squeeze your waist or side buckles to undo a strap in the cold? The tension is often so strong it becomes painful. Shimoda has redesigned the conventional clip so that they are easily opened and closed with gloves and from any angle. The hip, chest and side buckles are all slightly different but no less easy to use.