Shimoda Action X70 HD Review

I have been on a look out for new backpack for use with a 4x5 camera for a while, and particularly since a strap on my trusted Ortlieb snapped while last year on St Kilda — while I repaired it once back home, it made it clear to me that particular bag was simply not meant for that such heavy loads. Plus, it’s too small for use in the winter, or for multi-day backpacking trips.

I have to confess I am not a huge fan of camera backpacks, preferring a regular backpack with an insert. But a large format camera presents an extra challenge because of not only the weight, but also the bulk, which makes it very awkward to pack efficiently. Furthermore, a suitable bag needs to make it possible to attach a tripod centrally, as the size of tripod needed for a large format camera makes it impossible to mount it on the side without the bag being badly lopsided; surprisingly few ordinary bags are capable of that and / or of taking the weight of the tripod (it’s all ultralight stuff these days).

The Shimoda Action X70 HD caught my eye because of its unusually large depth (as in the dimension from the front to the back), which allows the custom inserts to have internal depth of 20cm. This is perfect for 4x5 because the long dimension of the film holder, and hence that of a folder, is ~19cm, which means it can all be packed into the insert like books on a shelf — the Shimoda Core Unit Large DV insert (i.e., the smaller of the two DV inserts), is more than big enough for a 4x5 system, with a camera like the Intrepid or Chamonix there is enough room for 4 lenses, dozen film holders, filters, and all the other usual paraphernalia. And there is enough space left in the bag for a lightweight summer camping setup.

So after some (OK, lot of, on account of the price tag) dithering, I decided to give it a go; this review is based on one overnight winter camping trip, without a large format camera but with a 17kg load, and then a number of day trips with the full LF setup (the load for that is again around 16-17kg, sandwiches included).

Let me start with the insert. Firstly, I should note that the insert is not included with the bag, you have to buy it separately, and it’s not cheap; there are two sizes, the XL and L, and it’s the L size that is optimal for 4x5 (the XL will take up most of the bag).

The insert itself is very well made, using much more solid foam than these things usually do, thus providing very good degree of protection. It also has a wire frame around the open end, so that it holds its shape when upright, and the velcroable partitions included with it are enough to portion it efficiently for the 4x5 use, and are stiff enough for it all not collapsing under the weight. The insert also comes with a nylon fabric enclosure, with a zipped top. I gather this is meant primarily for storage, which is handy, but I find it quite useful to keep on even when in the bag, so I can keep dust and drizzle out without having to mess with the big zip on the back panel of the bag.

Overall the bag is comfortable to carry with a heavy load, well thought out, and well made from good quality materials. It’s also quite rain-proof; I am not a fan of rain covers (annoying things when it’s windy, which in Scotland is almost always), so on the first weekend trip decided to see how waterproof the bag is without it, and was pleasantly surprised, as it stayed dry inside inspire of hours of steady rain on the first day; of course, it’s brand new, so I’ll need to see how well that lasts.

Now to the bag design: it’s of a roll-top construction (which I am a huge fan of), with an auxiliary water resistant zip access on the front (not convinced this is really that useful), and camera access through a zipped panel size of the Large DV insert. The inside of the bag is partitioned by a fabric ‘sock’ that is zipped in (and so can be removed), and when there is no insert in the sock stretches about 2/3rds of the bag. The sock has a couple of large inside mesh pockets, one front, one back, with the front one accessible through the mentioned zip access (though this doesn’t work so well when back is packed, I think the access zip could be removed without much impact on the usability of the bag).

One thing that is missing is an abrasion resistant reinforcement at the bottom of the bag; it is true that the bottom is made of a heavier fabric than the rest, but this material still has the coating on the outside, and you become very quickly conscious about where you are putting the bag down; of course, it is not always possible to put the bag down somewhere where you don’t need to worry about abrasion — this seems like a fairly obvious oversight.

On the front of the bag is a standard avalanche kit compartment (for quick access to shovel and probe), inside of which is an attachment for a hydration bladder (made from quite a flimsy tape which keeps getting trapped in the zipper), as well as a couple of pockets for ‘filters’, where I put my car keys and wallet. Then on each side of the bag there are two cleverly designed expandable pockets, that can be neatly zipped flat, but are large enough for mid-size tripod; the one omission with these is that they don’t have drainage holes, so if it’s raining and you have tripod in one of these, you might need to periodically pour the water out.

There are two additional, reasonably sized, zipped, pockets on the waist belt, plus two pockets on the shoulder straps, one big enough for 1/2l Nalgene bottle, and the other, padded one, for a phone; the phone pocket is useful, but could be bigger to make it more versatile — I think it would make lot of sense if the same, water-bottle sized, pocket was on both sides, as the design of the bottle pocket is such it would be fine for a phone as well. And finally there is a pocket in the bottom of the bag, with internal access only, where the rain cover resides; this provides extra padding to the bottom of the insert as well. However, only one of the pockets has an attachment point for keys and such (the awkward to get to internal front mesh pocket), I’d would have hoped the belt pockets would have had a loop each, and also the zipped pockets in the avalanche compartment would benefit from those.

One of the great features is that this bag has lot of attachment points. The sides of the bag have proper straps for attaching skis, with the bottom one made of a non-slip rubbery material, which is a nice touch — I expect it would make a nice multi-day ski touring bag, which was another reason it appealed to me.

Then there are straps for central attachment of a tripod — this is good, but unfortunately the straps are designed for a fairly small tripod; they are vertically too close together for something bigger, like a System 3 tripod, so that the legs protrude well below the base of the bag, and also the wider base of the tripod means it can swing sideways under the top strap. The former issue can be fixed by attaching some stronger (6mm or so) bungee cord to the loops on the base of the bag and winding it around the bottom of the legs. To prevent the side swing, the top belt needed to go through three loops rather than a single one; it’s possible to work around this by using some paracord loops attached to the sides, but given this is primarily a big camera bag, I’d have expected the tripod attachment to Just Work with something like System 3 tripod.

There are also a number of small loops along the sides and bottom of the bag, which, while too small for threading big straps through, can be used for a bungee cord, or a paracord loop that then could be used with a bigger strap. And there are also a couple of rings on the shoulder straps just above the pockets.

The harness is size-adjustable (S/M/L), well padded, with an alternative version for women available. The main straps have a couple of stabilisation straps on the top, as is standard these days, and are of an unusual shape, flaring out at the bottom end of the padding to better distribute weight onto one’s chest. I wasn’t entirely convinced about this being very useful when playing with the bag in the house, but out there with a heavy load, it works really well, it might be the most comfortable backpack shoulder straps I have experienced.

The harness also has the usual chest strap, with one of those annoying elastic tensioners — seriously, if your chest strap can be adequately tensioned by a bit of nicker elastic, you don’t need one; I would not bother mentioning it, but the consequence is the right side of the strap is too long, with less scope for adjustment than could have been (for me, the buckle is right against the left shoulder strap).

But that’s a minor issue. What is not, however, is that the metal buckles used on the bottom of the shoulder straps (which I understand are new on the current iteration of the bag for extra durability), do not hold tension. And I really mean do not hold tension; under load I have to re-adjust these every couple of minutes, sometimes even more often. To be completely blunt, these buckles are not fit for purpose, and the fact the bag went into production like that suggests to me it didn’t undergo any serious real world testing in the final configuration, you really only need to carry it for a quarter of an hour to see the buckles slip badly, and it gets worse with time as the straps soften up — I’ll be replacing the buckles on mine with some decent quality nylon ones.

This is the biggest, and I think only serious, flaw of this bag, but it’s a big one. As is, the bag is not suitable for use on any sort of technical ground, and I could not imagine skiing with it.

The waist belt is what makes or breaks a bag of this size, the one on this bag is ‘good enough, but could be better’. It’s well padded and sits well on the hip bones, which is the main thing. However the way it attaches to the back panel creates quite a wide flat spot, which you will know about after a while on the go; it is nowhere near as comfortable as the belt on the Ospreay Atmos 65G, which is a bag of a comparable size.

The waist belt has two stabilisation straps on the side, one of which gets in the way of the back access zip, so has this clever magnetic buckle. While the buckle itself works as advertised, and is easy to clip and unclip with gloved hands, it’s rather bulky; these straps due to their position are rather short, and the magnetic buckle is basically as wide as the adjustable space, i.e., that strap cannot be adjusted with the bag on, if at all; I am not convinced that given the length of the straps they are actually that functional, and I am thinking of cutting both of them off.

The big question is, is it worth the money? The short answer to that is ‘no’. Yes, it’s a well thought out bag made out of decent materials, but it is not that good to merit a price tag just shy of £400 without the insert (which, TBH, I think would still be too high even if the insert was included). And the slipping buckles on the shoulder straps are simply inexcusable at this price point. So if you are after a value for money, this is unlikely the best choice. The only real reason to buy this bag is if you cannot find a cheaper one that will do what you need it to do.

Nevertheless, it is a very good fit for a 4x5 camera and I expect to get a good use of it in the long run, after sorting out those irritating buckles.