Wisport Caracal backpack with Lowepro camera insert
This page describes my experience with the Wisport Caracal as a camera backpack with a camera insert made by Lowepro for a different backpack. For reviews of the Caracal as a trekking backpack, you should google the web.
For a while, I used an older version of a Lowepro Sports camera backpack (I don't remember the exact name of the model). I did like the idea of the removable insert, which could be extracted from the backpack in seconds and closed with a non-padded cloth cover. On the other hand, I found the shoulder straps, sternum strap and waist strap too thin and lightweight, and after a few long trips with this backpack, in mid-2010s I felt it was time to look for a better solution.
My idea at the time was to re-use the insert from the Lowepro backpack by placing it into a third-party backpack better suitable for trekking. This eliminated all top-loader backpacks, which severely restrict access to the insert. I also wanted to keep the security of access through a hatch in contact with my back while wearing the pack. This, in turn, eliminated all backpacks with a hatch facing away from my back. With over 95% of trekking backpacks now eliminated, my choice was somewhat easier (or more difficult, depending on the point of view).
The Wisport Caracal satisfies the above requirements of general size (25 l vs. the nominal 20 l of the Lowepro insert), large single compartment, large access hatch against my back and an apparently better harness than the Lowepro pack. The Wisport backpack also has the additional advantages of having standard PALS panels for add-on bags and pouches, and of not screaming "Valuable cameras inside!" like camera backpacks of well-known brands do. It is available in 20 different solid colors or camouflage patterns. The color I chose is a variation of urban gray, which Wisport calls "graphite". It has a slight bluish-greenish shade, rather than neutral gray. Other brands of trekking equipment use different shades of urban gray, so only Wisport add-on PALS external bags are a perfect color match. All plastic clasps, zippers and nets, and some of the ribbons, are black.
The Lowepro insert is, basically, shaped like a brick. The first problem I noticed with the Lowepro insert in the Wisport backpack is that the Caracal is deeper in its lowermost portion (i.e., the hip section) than at its top. This causes the mass of the equipment to shift downward within the insert, and the latter to expand in its lowermost portion and sag in its uppermost portion. This shifting of mass, however, is ultimately restricted by the cloth shell of the backpack. Also, the insert is well made, and tends to expand sideways rather than bulging in thickness. This contributes to making the problem tolerable.
A result of the insert expanding at its bottom is that it shortens along its height. When I started to use the insert in this backpack, it was filling its entire height. Now, a few years and a few long trips later, some 5-10 cm remain empty at the top of the backpack once the insert and its contents settle down under gravity while I am wearing the pack.
An additional thing to note is that this backpack was not designed to hold an insert, but just to pack loose items like clothing and camping gear. The insert was held in place in its original backpack by two large velcro patches on its top and bottom.
In the above figure, the insert contains the following equipment:
Note that all lenses but one (the 300 mm) insert with their top or bottom first. Lenses up to 140 mm in length including front and rear caps fit comfortably this way.
I added the blue Velcro straps to keep the insert in shape, and to prevent the 300 mm lens from falling out if the backpack if opened while standing vertically.
The topmost space in the insert (at the right in the figure) is excessively large, compared to a mirrorless body and lens. Even with an Op-Tech padded strap wrapped around the lens, plenty of space is left unused. This space cannot be made any smaller by moving the partitions, because the walls here have no felt for Velcro attachment.
Less obvious is that 4 to 6 cm remain unused along the 300 mm lens. An SSD memory bank, in a neoprene sleeve, fits very comfortably here. A speedlight, or even a Godox AD200 flash with speedlight head, may fit here, but requires extra padding that cannot be very thick. These wasted spaces, difficult to utilize, result from the fact that the insert was designed with large DSLRs in mind, rather than mirrorless equipment. This is understandable, given that this insert was probably designed over a decade ago.
The rest of the partitions make a slightly better use of the space, but it can be seen that most lenses fit a bit loosely, with more space wasted. Note that the depth of the insert allows for camera bodies, as well as lenses, inserted along their longest dimension. There is enough space left to stack a small lens or a focal length multiplier on top of each of the three lenses in the foreground.
It is important to note that most add-on bags for lenses and accessories made by manufacturers of camera bags, like Lowepro, have attachments similar to the PALS system but differently sized, and do not fit PALS webbings (Standard PALS straps are horizontal, 25 mm thick, separated by 25 mm spaces and sewn to the backing every 38 mm). PALS attachments are commonly called MOLLE, which is however not exactly the same thing.
Wisport makes several types and sizes of add-on bags with PALS attachments, but they are not padded, and not usable for sensitive camera equipment without the addition of third-party padding. Some third-party companies do market PALS-compatible camera and lens pouches.
Compared to pictures of the Wisport Caracal from the manufacturer, the Lowepro insert changes the shape of the backpack, making it wider but less deep in the lumbar area. The manufacturer's pictures are only indicative, because in those pictures the backpack is only filled with lightweight padding. For example, whenever the backpack is filled with loose heavy gear, the bottom of the backpack becomes more sagging than in the manufacturer's pictures.
The bunching of the insert also makes it a little more time-consuming to operate the zippers of the hatch. They are not as fast to operate as the zippers of a properly designed camera backpack.
More about the Wisport Caracal
The Caracal backpack is not designed to stay upright when laid on the ground, and has no rigid frame except for two fiberglass rods along the back. To give better protection to the equipment and my back, I keep a rubber foam sheet (a trekking seat pad) in the hydration pocket lining the back. There is no place for a laptop anywhere in the backpack. A tablet might fit but would not be well protected.
The bottom of the pack is not made from an externally waterproof material, and is easily soiled with mud. The cloth of the pack is waterproofed on its internal surface, and the rain cover stored in a pocket at the bottom of the pack gives some additional protection to the pack contents, but moisture might eventually find its way to the interior along the stitches, joints and zippers.
Five clasps supplement the zipper holding the backpack closed, and can be used to fasten external items like a monopod or tripod (which, however, must be detached when opening the backpack).
The two zippers at the rear of the Caracal backpack are pockets. The topmost one is quite small but can hold some three-dimensional items like calorie bars, especially once the insert has shifted downward. The other is a larger but flat pocket with space for items like passport, plane tickets and a thin camera manual. There is no external pocket for a water bottle.
The sides and rear of the backpack are covered in PALS webbings and accept a good variety of add-on bags. In practice, with a large add-on bag on either side and a few smaller ones on the rear, the volume of the backpack can be doubled. However, items attached on the rear of the pack should not be so heavy as to change its balance. I use additional bags only for a water bottle on one side, and a rolled-up windbreaker on the other side. PALS webbings for small add-ons are also available on either side of the waist belt. Straps can be attached at the bottom of the pack, e.g. for a rolled-up sleeping bag or a horizontally placed tripod.
Use of the PALS panels at the sides of the pack is partly impeded by an oblique stitching across the topmost three PALS straps, which leaves only one or two PALS slots available on each strap. Only the three bottom PALS straps have four slots each available. The PALS panel on the back of the pack is likewise only partly usable, with some of the slots a bit too narrow to allow the passage of standard PALS fittings. If you are planning to attach multiple PALS bags to the outside of this pack, you must do some careful planning and experimentation, especially with three- or four-unit wide add-on bags. PALS panels work well when laid out on a flat rectangular surface, but this pack has no such surfaces.
An additional external pocket at the bottom of the pack contains a rain cover. The original Wisport rain cover is green and covers the backpack too tightly to allow for an attached tripod or extra PALS bags. I replaced it with a moderately larger orange rain cover that doubles as a visual distress signal in case of emergencies.
The sternum strap folds around either shoulder strap and is additionally trapped by a cross-connector, and therefore it should be almost impossible to lose. Each cross-connector, as originally supplied by Wisport, carries a hook, apparently for hanging the nipple of the hydration bladder. I replaced these cross-connectors with third-party ones equipped with a D-ring, which allow me to clip a short camera strap, binoculars or other equipment, hanging close at hand in the middle of my chest.
The hip belt can be removed and stored inside the pack, which reduces the number of straps hanging loose and makes it easier to store the pack in an overhead bin on a plane. The shoulder straps, however, can be neither removed nor stowed in a pocket. They can only be made slightly less cumbersome by closing the sternum strap behind the netting of the pack harness.
The two fiberglass rods that stiffen the back of the pack can be removed. On a couple of occasions, flying to and from the USA, I stored these rods in my checked-in suitcase, just to avoid any potential problems with airport security.
The carrying handle at the top of the pack is more than large enough for one hand, but is a non-padded strap and not very comfortable after a while. There is no side handle, which actually would make it easier to carry the pack without wearing it.
Given the numerous belts, straps and clasps hanging from this backpack, checking it in requires it to be stored in a plastic or canvas sack.
The empty Wisport Caracal is rated at 1 kg of weight. In extreme situations, checking in the empty backpack and carrying only the camera insert as carry-on luggage may make the difference between a problem-free trip and a forced check-in of your camera equipment at the gate.
The camera insert described on this page is not available for purchase as a separate item from its original backpack. However, with a little luck it should be possible to find a third-party camera insert, or a no-brand one from China, that fits your favorite trekking backpack. Finding a trekking backpack that allows a reasonably easy and quick access to the equipment in the camera insert requires careful research. If the comfort and features of a well-designed, dedicated camera backpack are important, however, then the purchase of a really good camera backpack well-suited for your equipment remains the best choice.
An additional point is that backpacks wear out much faster than camera equipment. There is a kind of rough attractiveness to an externally worn out camera backpack that suggests it has seen a few too many adventures, but a camera insert worn out and twisted out of shape, to me at least, is quite a sorry thing. Like the kind of clothes you may still like to wear doing physical work in the backyard, it is not necessarily what you want to wear every day on an overseas vacation.
You should also accept that the perfect camera backpack for all your needs just does not exist (and, more likely than not, simply cannot exist), and therefore you should be prepared to accept a good, albeit not perfect, camera backpack. As an additional excuse for looking for a new camera bag, one can consider that camera bags are now being improved and specialized faster than the camera equipment they are designed to contain.
Although I have changed camera bags and packpacks every few years, I don't do so much more often than I change cameras. If you find yourself changing camera bags significantly more often than cameras, you can console yourself with the knowledge that you are not alone. However, the need for changing your camera bag can at least be reduced by extensive research before making a choice.
You may also find that two, or perhaps three, different camera bags for different types of field work may suit you better than just one bag. For example, street photography usually requires a quick, relatively small and discrete backpack, nature photography a larger backpack with adjustable harness designed for long hikes, and a few days' vacation with an economy carrier a really small shoulder bag for just a camera body and two or three average-sized lenses. Possessing more than four or five camera bags at the same time, however, could be a symptom of an Imelda Marcos-type fixation with bags - especially if accompanied by a predilection for collecting shoes, jewels, gold bars and stashes of currency.
The combination of Wisport backpack and Lowepro camera insert described on this page works as well as can be expected for equipment not designed to be used together. However, the Wisport Caracal is not a top-notch trekking backpack, and naturally lacks some of the features expected in a dedicated camera backpack. The Lowepro insert has become twisted out of shape by not fitting very well in the backpack. Nonetheless, this combination is still a good choice in places where an anonymous backpack is preferable to an easily recognizable camera backpack.