Full disclosure: I am sponsored by Lowepro. I prefer the bags, or I wouldn't work with them.
This summer I joined David and Michael Hanson on a 30-day documentary film shoot on three great Southern rivers, the Apalachacola, Chattahoochee, and Flint. (The film is due out in early 2014 and you can follow along at www.whoownswater.org)
Packing gear for most river trips goes something like this: Stuff everything into the multicolor bombproof, waterproof NRS dry bags like sausages and lash them to the boats (in our case, open canoes)
This is sort of a “first-in, first-out” method of packing. I think his is one reason river rats are so dirty: You end up always wearing the one change of clothes that happens to be in the top of the sausage. NRS also makes excellent dry duffels of course, but what is life without struggle?
Now imagine adding camera gear to the mix. Usually, you want to use a more “random-access” method here, as most camera-bags provide: open it up and pick from it like a buffet. You can achieve this with hard-sided Pelican-style cases (which we did) but they are often not shaped well for morphing into the hull of a boat. Lots of wasted space. Soft-sided camera bags on the other hand are still plenty rugged but generally aren’t waterproof.
So how do you balance river bag-style waterproofness with the accessibility of a camera bag? Usually, the solution is to just stuff your soft camera bags into giant dry bags along with your ramen and socks.
Here’s where the Lowepro DryZone bags come in. Lowepro currently has three on the market :
So, two “roll-top” style bags, just like the standard river bag, where you roll the top of the bag tightly several times and then lash it down on both sides with buckles. The third is the original DryZone bag, with waterproof zippers.
You’ll notice on this page that Lowepro provides “IP ratings” for their bags.
Let’s talk about waterproofness and the IP ratings. “IP” stands for “Ingress Protection.” To get an official rating, you have to submit your bag to a series of standardized tests. The rating ends up as “IP” followed by a bunch of digits and letters. Like this: IP###n
The first digit signifies dust protection level. The second digit signifies liquid protection. Don’t worry about the rest. When a protection level is irrelevant, you replace it with an “X” or leave it off the end.
So for example, the DryZone Duffel 20 is rated to IPX6: “Protection from powerful water jets”, (no official dust protection rating.)
IPX6 is higher than IPX5, “Protection from water jets” and lower than IPX7, “Immersion up to 1m”
You may be surprised to learn that the original DryZone 200, with its rubberized waterproof zippers, is rated to IPX7. Zippers more waterproof than a river-style roll top? Yes! Many roll top bags have even lower ratings – Ortlieb’s “Heavyweight Drybags” are rated to 4 for example (you see they have a dust rating) while their Expedition Duffel is rated to 7, and uses the same TIZIP zipper as on the DryZone 200. The completely waterproof zippers for coast guard immersion suits and the like were developed by NASA as airtight zippers for space suits.
These waterproof zippers are expensive. They are also a little trickier to use than normal zippers. You have to take care of them, keep them lubricated and say nice things to them in order to open and close them properly. Why don’t roll top bags offer the same protection? There is the potential for creating an air pocket in the roll, compromising waterproofness under pressure. If you overfill the bag, you might not perform enough rolls to keep water out.
I’ve used the DryZone 200 with waterproof zippers and they are certainly waterproof, but maybe this level of waterproofness is overkill, given the added effort it takes to use the zippers. Most people are not floating in the ocean with their camera gear on their back, and a bag rated IPX6 can certainly take the occasional dunking – we’ve been doing it for years with roll top bags. So lets talk about the two new roll top bags, the DryZone Backpack 40L and Duffle 20L.
As the names signify, one is a back pack, the other is a duffel. Lots of nice product shots on the website, so I won’t bother here. How do they perform? We didn’t have these on the river trip, but I’ve shot with them several times now, shooting climbing and trail running videos in the mountains of Tennessee as well as photos for the US National Whitewater Center in Charlotte NC.
For me, ease of access is key. Unless you are using an underwater housing, the only time the camera is protected is when its actually in the bag. No matter where you are, once you start shooting, your camera is out in the elements.
In order to have a roll top closure, you need to have a lot of material at the top, and it can’t have too wide of an opening. So fishing in the bag for a CF card is not quite as easy as with a normal camera bag. To this end, both the backpack and duffle feature removable camera inserts, basically a nylon tote bag that carries the foam dividers and has a simple zipper closure. This also adds an extra measure of protection. Genius. I usually slid the insert out and kept it out, only putting it back in the bag for transport or when the weather went south.
The two new bags are constructed from a 210-denier non-PVC tarpaulin material. It’s thinner than what you might expect from a dry bag. Makes it a little easier to roll, for one thing. On the sides are a thicker 840-denier tarpaulin tie-down points for webbing or compression straps. A nice touch, along with reflective patches. Gear loops, tiedowns and straps are kept fairly minimal. The duffel has an external zipper pocket. You’ll appreciate this somewhat minimal and streamlined design when you are sliding it in and out of kayak holds, not much to catch or snag on things.
A typical day in the life of my bags: Pile em in the car, take them out, sit in the rain, stuff them in a kayak, shoot, wash them off in the river, drag them up a cliff, pack them back up, next location, repeat) I saw no reason why these wouldn’t take the same abuse my bags have come to expect from me.
Look and Feel:
The bags come currently come in this yellow color. I actually like it, because I can tell at a glance which ones are the DryZone bags from a pile. Probably catches your eye on the shelf as well. Lowepro plans to “potentially” expand to some other colorways.
The removable tote is key! That design is what makes this a great balance between water protection and a usable camera bag. I’d definitely like to see more sizes and shapes, and you should expect to see more additions to this line in 2014.
Some photos from the USNWC