06 December 2011

Domke Toad 20 waist pack - Review

There are three major ways of transporting our photographic stuff in the field. They are: shoulder packs, backpacks and waist packs. All of the shapes have its pluses and minuses and the "one kind fits all" philosophy is an approach that is quite useless in this area. 
Regardless of the system that we adopt, we have to understand one's decision as the best compromise between weight, load capacity, carrying comfort, ergonomics and durability. Of the three, we can immediately reject the shoulder pack (or shoulder bag). Although being the most user-friendly design of the bunch, its asymmetrical placement over the body for transportation makes it a nightmare for long distance walking. They have their use in photojournalism, in (several) sports photography, in the studio. Ergonomically speaking, shoulder bags are the best of all. By a large margin. Lots of space for stowage, they come in a variety of shapes and sizes in a variation of the concept single body/single compartment. However, as practical as they might be, just imagine yourself in a fifteen mile hike on the mountains with ten kilograms of material suspended from one of your shoulders. 
That leaves us with the last two options: backpacks and waist packs. I'm a big fan of waist packs. For one important reason: they keep your back dry. It might not be important to someone hiking in the desert or in the jungle (out there, you are already wet anyway!). But in the mountains of Madeira island,where you face low temperatures and high humidity in the air in every season other then Summer, being wet is not an option that you should take lightly. But this option forces you to a compromise in... space. With a backpack (particularly for those with double compartment)  you'll always have a small space for a rain jacket, for a snack, for an additional polar fleece. 
With a waist pack you can forget all of it. A water bottle, an energy bar and a few crackers, a Swiss army knife and torch and you are done in terms of survival items for the wild. Not forgetting to mention that, compared to the other two systems described above, you'll always take to the field less equipment due to the smaller size of these packs, what do you gain by using one of them? You gain freedom. 
Easy. All the clothes needed you are already dressing them. You are dressing for the occasion. Not more, not less. Actually, if possible, a little bit for the less. Your rain jacket (your third layer), during the hike goes around your waist. You are walking and feeling hot. Your body is working as a radiator. Let it release all the heat and the sweat, so you always stay dry during walking time. The rain jacket is to be used when stopping, so that you are protected from the cold temperatures... and from rain showers. A pair of light fleece gloves goes to a pocket in the pants when not in use. And the same goes to a fleece hood.
On the waist pack itself you take a medium size DSLR body with 18-55mm lens attached, a 55-200mm and a flash. Add to the mix a handful of needed accessories and a couple of spare batteries and you are done. The tripod, if needed, is transported over your shoulders (military style) and if you opt, instead, for the monopod you get at the same time a hiking stick.
I've told you about freedom, didn't I?
There are several waist packs on the market. From several makers. LowePro, Mountainsmith, Tamrac and Domke are just a few. A few years ago I've decided to buy one of them and, somehow, influenced by the cost factor I've made a choice for the Domke Toad 20. At the time was one of the cheapest on the market and for the price paid I still consider it as a very good equipment in terms of cost/quality.
I bought it in Adorama (www.adorama.com) in July of 2008, by a mere 29.99 USD. And as you can see on the pictures below, there's a lot of bang for the buck.

The general aspect of the Domke Toad 20, on the picture above. A simple but effective design, punctuated by three colours: black, blue and yellow.

The zippers (all them a bit too tight) have yellow rope extensions on them, allowing for the operation with gloved hands. The same applies to the side pockets. The main belt, made with a smooth and silky mesh is easily adjustable and on each side of the main body two adjusting loops assure a snug fit to the body.

The main compartment, in bright yellow, makes all the equipment easily seen even in somehow murky conditions. Velcro dividers in the same color allows for a more personal division of the space inside. However, make no mistake, the space inside is exiguous. In the configuration shown above, the widest part of the compartment accepts a Nikon D40x (or any DSLR with similar size) with 18-55mm attached. The smaller space accepts a medium zoom in upright position or any other extra lens. Both side pockets can also be used to the stowage of accessories. The top cover, opening away from the body (well done Domke) has capacity for thin accessories, so all the small things can be placed there (filters, batteries, cables, cleaning items, etc).

The main compartment is accessible by the front zippered pocket, even if you have the top cover closed.  To fulfill that second option you just have to remove the longest yellow separator, which is connected to the "walls" of the main compartment by velcro stripes. Sadly, this main divider is not "velcroed" to the bottom of the main compartment. Therefore, some small accessories that you might stow on the small front pocket sometimes migrate (due to the walking movements) to the main compartment and you end up looking for them under the camera body or the extra lens. Not a big drama if we pay attention, but can eventually damage paintings, scratch plastics or lenses if we are not aware.

Under the bag we see these two slots that gives this waist pack an additional transport capacity. For that, you'll need two loops (that also come as standard accessories). Although it seems these slots were designed to carry a tripod, I don't feel they are resistant enough for that kind of weight. I use them to carry an additional piece of cloth. And that's about it.

Finally, the spares and accessories, from top to bottom: the all-weather cover, two spare velcro dividers for additional customization, two loops for additional transport capacity and a small mesh bag for carrying the all-weather cover.

All in all a very nice waist pack. Certain details on it gave me the impression that some inputs from sports and active photographers were taken into account for the development of the product. The (few) minor cons cannot make me forget that this is a very good equipment. Probably, at the time, the best for the price. And, although I upgraded recently for a more recent item, I still look for it when I want to travel light or when I don't need to carry to much stuff. And that's freedom. Because we are only truly free when we give up.