In Part One of this article I talked about the problem of wildnerness photography in relation to how to comfortably carry equipment into the field on extended hikes and some of the problems I have encountered over the years. I also talked some more about the Gura Gear Kiboko camera bag now that I have been using one for a year in the field. At the risk of repetition the Gura Gear Kiboko is I believe the best camera bag on the market that I have tried for my style of photography.
In Part Two of this article I am going to talk about how the custom Khumbu Xtra-Hand Vest performed for me in the field over a couple of days shooting up at Mount Buffalo in Victoria in the middle of winter. I was very keen to get out into the wilderness with my new vest from Vested Interest to see if it would live up to my hopes and expectations. I was relatively fortunate with the weather over the weekend as it was mostly fine; although a little overcast on Sunday. It was quite cold up at Buffalo with temperatures well below zero for the sunrise shoots and hovering around zero during most of the day before plummeting again at sunset. It did not rain or snow over the weekend although the occasional wind blasts were very cold and quite damp.
I did several long hikes with the vest including a single hike of approximately ten kilometres through quite deep snow loaded up with a Canon EOS 1DS MKIII with a Really Right Stuff L Bracket, a 70-200mm F2.8L IS lens, a 24mm F1.4L MKII lens, a 17mm F4 TSE lens, a Canon S90 Point and Shoot, my Lee Filter Pack and Filter Holders, Polarising filters, spare battery, spare memory case and cable release, my full size Gitzo Tripod and Really Right Stuff Ballhead and of course my small thermos of coffee as well as all the normal personal items like car keys, mobile phone etc.. This is not an inconsiderable amount of equipment and although I did not weigh it I would estimate it to be in excess of ten kilograms and possibly quite a bit more. I wore a marino wool long sleeve thermal top, my 66 North Eldja mid layer jacket with a 66 North Glymur waterproof jacket over the top. The Xtra-Hand vest went over the top of all this without issue. Because the side straps of the vest are adjustable it is very easy to wear this vest in both the height of summer and dead of winter. I would rate this adjustability among the vests strongest attributes as it means this is an all year accessory; and not season specific. Synching the vest up is a snap with the side straps and its very quick and easy to make adjustments.
A few thoughts on how this vest performed in the field: I can easily reach my hand over my shoulder and pull out my tripod from the large back pocket to set up a take a photograph without having to remove the vest. This is very convenient when one needs to work quickly. It means I can stop anywhere and access everything I need without having to take off the vest. Putting the tripod back is difficult without taking off the vest and really requires either removing the vest (which only takes a moment) or having an assistant or nearby photographer drop it back in the pocket. I should stress that I use a full size Gitzo GT3530 LSV Carbon Fibre Tripod. This is a very large 3-section tripod and it is a testament to the excellent design of this vest that it can be carried on the back securely, without flopping around and lifted out without the need to remove the vest. Every back pack that I have ever tried that claims it can carry a tripod on side straps fails to adequately support the large Gitzo. Incidentally, I made comment in Part One of this article that I can fit my 300mm F2.8L IS lens in the back pocket of this vest. In point of fact, the pocket is actually large enough to store up to a 600mm F4L lens with the lens hood reversed mounted to Canon 1D MKIV. That should go a long way toward giving you and idea of the storage capacity of this pocket. Of course, there is no way you could remove a 600mm lens and attached camera without first removing the vest. The pocket has a velcro lid and also a drain hole should water get in – another solid plus in the design.
I found the side pockets of the vest a great location for storing lenses up to the size of the Canon 70-200mm F2.8L IS. I can reach around and take a lens in and out of these pockets with relative ease without having to remove the vest. The 70-200mm F2.8L IS lens is somewhat of a tight fit in these pockets and if I was ordering this vest again would have the circumference of one of the pockets increased slightly to more easily accommodate this lens. As it stands its acceptable with the 70-200 F2.8L IS and easy with anything smaller. The ability to retrieve and stow a lens or thermos in the side pocket is a real boon as I found it very convenient when I wanted a cup of coffee on a hike or wanted to access a lens quickly.
The padded hip belt was I feel a significant factor in the comfort this vest provided over long hikes. During a three and a half hour hike through relatively deep snow I never felt any back or neck discomfort. I only removed the vest once during a snack break and only then to climb a nearby boulder more freely for a better view of the surroundings. The vest does an outstanding job of spreading the weight of the equipment much better than a traditional back-pack that loads the shoulders and tends to make you somewhat unbalanced. By loading up the front pockets of the vest as a counterweight to the large rear pocket weight is more evenly distributed and makes hiking much easier. The padded hip belt just helps spread the weight and transfer some of it to the waist. Because of the nature of this product being a vest everything is easily accessible in pockets; which is extremely convenient and makes working in the field with a backpack seem very primitive.
Overall I am very impressed with how this vest performed in its first field test. It has met my expectations and actually proved more comfortable on long hikes than I had envisaged it would be. As I mentioned in Part One, these vests are custom made for the photographer. They are about function and convenience and not style and looks. I am certainly not going to win any fashion awards in the field with this accessory; but it is going to make my hikes more comfortable and my equipment more accessible and that makes it a well designed product in my book.