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“What bag are you using?”
Oddly, it’s one of the most surprisingly frequent questions I get asked when I do videos for TCS TV. Photographers are all about the bags because getting the gear to the photograph is, let’s be honest, a pain in the ass (or back, or shoulder). For me, the answer most often is a bag from Gura Gear. On my recent trip to Zion and Southwest Utah, I got to try out their all new backpack, the Uinta 30L (pronounced “You-inta”…as in “you inta’ photography, boy?”). Why yes, as a matter of fact, I am. I kind of got ‘inta this bag, too.
Completely Unstaged Dashing Adventurer Product Shot #1
Fuji, X-T1, 10-24mm lens, somewhere in Utah
Gura Gear is a boutique bag maker based in Ogden Utah and run by Greg Schern, the passionate young entrepreneur who originally created Moab Paper. Gura began when photographer Andy Biggs and a few friends were sitting on safari, bantering about the shortcomings of their carrying equipment. Bored of belly-aching, they decided that a better bag was possible. And so were the first Gura Gear bags – Kiboko series – were born. Bar none, these were the best way to carry epic amounts on gear into dusty remote regions. Michael reviewed the Kiboko here a few years ago, and loved it.
From these humble but ambitious beginnings, Gura has grown into a unique company making what I think are some pretty excellent products. They also recently spawned a coolmade in Americaline of general purpose messenger and travel bags under the name “Ogden Made“. The Uinta is their latest, and in my estimation perhaps best, offering yet.
The “these guys are my friends” Disclaimer
The guys who own and run Gura are my friends. I travel, shoot and break bread with them. I use their gear on every shoot and review it without apology because I like it. More than that, in an age where unchecked globalism had has rendered businesses into commodities, traded like cards between faceless private equity funds, actually knowing the people who make the things we use in our art is a true pleasure.
Owner-operated companies are also often the best companies when it comes to quality, service, and customer responsiveness. Gura Gear is no exception. The people who imagine, design, prototype, test, redesign, re-prototype, re-test (you get the idea) these bags are actual photographers who care about the product. Personally, I like that a lot. But I claim no neutrality.
Now you know. So take what follows as you will.
The Evolution of the Line
After the success of the Kiboko, Gura followed up with the evolutionary Bataflae series (pronounced like “butterfly” with a Rocky Balboa accent). I reviewed the first two Bataflaes here, and they remain my go-to bags. (The incredibly capacious yet compact 18L for daily use, and the 32L to store and carry my studio lighting kit.) But a hole remained. While the Bataflaes are great gear-movers, users looking for a hiking or travel bag which can be dual-purposed to carry both camera gear and other essentials needed something different.
Enter the new Uinta
Whereas the Kiboko and Bataflae bags were single-mindedly devoted to carrying as much gear as your wallet could feed them, the Uinta is a modular hiking/camera pack, expressly designed with the day-tripping or travelling photographer in mind. From the outside, it looks like a really nice, really light daypack. From the inside, it unzips to reveal almost 30 litres of contiguous capacity, divided between a large upper area and a smaller lower space. The seams of the bag are hinged between the compartments, allowing for unique on-belt access, which I will describe below.
The Uinta is both large and small. It looks compact, and I have even passed it as my carry-on “personal item”. In terms of carrying capacity, however, I’d be hard pressed to think of a scenario in which this bag doesn’t meet the needs of someone out shooting for the day, or traveling with gear.
The Uinta as an Object
“Let me give you the ten minute run-through before you go to bed,” was Greg’s offer the first time I saw the bag. It was late, but why not. Seventy minutes later he was still like zipping zippers, tearing and stacking inserts, all the time talking about….like a kid with a new Lego set on a Christmas morning. Like I said, it’s really fun to know the people who make your toys.
The amount of time and thought that went into choosing each material for this bag was both surprising and re-assuring. The bag itself is made of quintuple-layered super-duper synthetic goodness. I’m sure the Gura website lays it out in detail for the super-techy crowd, but all I need to know is that the thing is made of the best materials this side of a Navy Seal kit, and it won’t break, rip, tear or otherwise crap-out barring some really egregious misuse.
The one thing which really stood out was the efforts which went into the choice of foam for the padding. Foam adds bulk and weight. Bulk and weight are the enemy. The Uinta’s padding is both thin and strong. I’ll tell you in a few years how it stands up, but I’ll be astonished if it crumples, dents and generally surrenders the way the dividers in some of my cheaper bags ultimately did.
Beyond foam, the fit and finish on the bag is outstanding. You only notice it if you look, and even then things like the stitch-count and thread-choices are designed to remain invisible. Suffice to say a lot of thought went into the bags materials, and you are getting what you pay for.
Completely Unstaged Dashing Adventurer Product Shot #2
Fuji, X-T1, 10-24mm lens, somewhere in Utah
The Uinta is basically a shell into which various combinations of camera and non-camera inserts can be fitted. At max-capacity, the bag can haul way too much gear. In its more diverse configurations, it can either carry a small field-kit and a lot of other gear, or a lot of gear and a goodly amount of food/clothing/water, etc.
At present, two sizes of insert, “small” and “medium” are available. These could also be used to carry gear in other, non-dedicated camera bags, but are principally designed to fit the two parts of the Uinta. The nomenclature of the line suggests that a single “large” insert may come along if users ask for it to carry super-teles. But I think the system is perfect as-is for most users looking for this kind of bag, since the express purpose of the bag is to allow non-camera carrying space.
This is where it gets interesting. The Uinta’s main compartment is accessed from the inside – the side touching your back. With the waist-strap fastened, the Uinta is designed to spin around and hinge-forward in front of the wearer, allowing access to the main compartment without removing the bag. I was skeptical of this until I tried it. I quickly found that this was one of my favourite ways to work. I could get very large pieces of gear (such as an MF body with a zoom lens) in and out without concern that I’d drop it. This system works.
A further benefit of rear-side access is that the surface touching your back does not rest on the ground when you take the bag off. This is a really good feature. More often than not, I often find myself working in snow, dust or mud. Putting the bag down on its carrying-side messes up permeable mesh fabrics and padding rather quickly. By contrast, the nylon front side is way more resilient, allowing almost anything to just be brushed off with a damp cloth. I’ve beat mine up a bit, and it still looks new.
Front Pocket and Laptop Pouch
The Uinta has a large front-pocket for traditional carrying. As with the camera compartment, there are zippered spaces to hold small items, and a generous amount of general space. Critically, there is also a dedicated and well-padded laptop slot in its front pocket, suitable for up to a 17” laptop. The Uinta swallowed my 15” MB Pro without comment, and I almost forgot that it was there.
The most innovative piece of design on the Uinta is the “THS” – short for “Tripod and Hydration System”. Originally known inside Gura as the “beavertail” because of its shape, the THS is a thin rectangular flap which clips onto the outside surface of the bag. It serves a number of purposes. First off, there is a pocket sewn into the THS for a hydration bladder, which is a popular option for many outdoorsmen and women. Second, jackets, sweaters and the like can be slip between the THS and the main body the bag, and then held fast by compressing the THS tightly to the bag via the straps. And perhaps more importantly, the THS can do all this while carrying your tripod. Two legs go inside the flap, and one out. The THS is then pulled tight and voila, the tripod is secure. I have never seen as good and as simple an idea work this well. The THS holds the tripod comfortably in place, but allows it to be released almost instantly and effortlessly. This is, bar none, the best the tripod-carrying arrangement I have seen or tried.
On my recent trip to the Southwest, I hiked all day in rugged conditions, carrying a large Gitzo tripod on the THS, taking it on and off fifteen or twenty times. The bag never got in the way. I never found myself doing the mental math as to whether the hassle of removing or remounting the tripod was worth it. When we exited the canyon we were shooting in, and the hot sun made our sweaters and coats surplus, these could be add to the THS even with the tripod in place.
As you can see from the picture below, the location of the clips on the THS make it ideal for carrying a jacket or additional piece of clothing, even with the tripod strapped into place. What a great design.
In Zion, I carried a Hasselblad H4 with a 35-90mm zoom mounted and a Fuji X-T1 with the 18-55mm kit lens, the 56mm f1.2 and the 10-24mm super wide-angle,all in the top pouch. This left the bottom area open for snacks, sunglasses, a second water bottle, field first-aid kit, and a shell layer. This thing takes a lot of gear. I never got around to putting the front pouch to much use, since everything I needed for a day hike could be carried in the main compartment.
Gura takes dividers very seriously. Greg kept me up late into the night folding, mating, curling and contorting the abundant dividers which come with the Uinta in a variety of configurations to best accommodate all my gear. The dividers are not only made of a much higher quality foam than your typical bag, they have a lot of Velcro in the right places, and the main dividers are segmented, making them ridiculously configurable. If you likes Tetris, you’ll LOVE these bags J.
The Uinta carries extremely well and is highly adjustable. I’ve previously waxed-poetic about the carrying qualities of Gura’s bags, and needn’t rehash that. There are apparently refinements here even from the Bataflae bags, which I don’t find to have any shortcomings on carrying.
I think all of Gura’s bags look nice, but they have been unapologetically functional to this point. The Uinta, however, takes style seriously, in a pleasingly subtle way. While the appearance of a bag may be a superficial conceit perhaps, I’m wearing it like clothing so how it looks matters. With brands like Crumpler going bright and brassy, and ONA’s urban style is now clearly an important point of differentiation in camera bags. The Uinta is the nicest looking Gura bag yet.
One thing I really like is how subtly the Uinta is branded. Gura’s trademark cairn appears only as a mark on the shoulder straps. Everything down to the colour of the zippers and pulls has been carefully thought out, though this is all very understated and you’ll have to think about why the bag looks refined to notice these touches.
The Value Proposition
Gura bags aren’t cheap, in any sense of that phrase. But neither are they that costly. Many people balk at the cost of better bags. While I very much respect people who pursue their passion in photography on a tight budget, I have little understanding of those who cart around $5-50K of gear in a cheap bag. To me at least, the price difference to step-up to a bag of Gura’s quality is no-brainer. It’s barely the cost of a nice dinner out for something that will hang off your back more comfortably for years to come, and better protect your equipment. But hey, it’s your spine.
If you want a bag that both hikes and carries a lot of gear, you might just find the Uinta is the ticket.
A Footnote: the Sleeper 18L
I obviously don’t review every piece of I own, but one has slipped through the cracks that’s worth a mention. About a year ago, Gura added the 18L to their Bataflae line. It rapidly became my go-to bag. While it is appreciably smaller than 26L and 32L bags, the design has been tweeked to more of a conventional single-pocket, rather than the trademark dual-sided approach of Gura’s previous bags. For a nominally small bag, the 18L holds a gargantuan amount of gear for the price. I can literally put ever single Nikon lens I own, along with my D800e in it. Even at that load, it’s still good to carry. As a big plus, it can accommodate up to a 13” MB Pro laptop in a dedicated sleeve. The absence of a laptop slot was something I bemoaned on the early Bataflaes, and that has gotten fixed.
If you’re looking for a pure camera backpack, and don’t need safari-level carrying capacity, the 18L may just be the best in its class.
Nick Devlin – follow me on Twitter @onelittlecamera