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Review of the Crumpler Whickey and Cox camera backpack/rucksack.

PhotoNotes.org DonationsCopyright © 2006 NK Guy

http://photonotes.org/reviews/whickey-and-cox/

The search for the perfect camera bag is, as any photographer knows, something of an endless Grail-like quest. And since your requirements vary from shoot to shoot it really is impossible to find a product which meets your ever need. Unless, perhaps, you have a single camera and lens.

So this review is stupidly long and detailed mainly because it took months of research to find a bag that worked for me. And I thought I’d put this information on my site in case it benefits someone else.

Note that this review is now partly out of date in one important regard. I was looking for a photo backpack which would fit European carry-on regulations. In August 2006 these regulations changed in the UK, and as a result this bag became no longer carry-on legal. However, by October the rules had changed again so it now is on most airlines. See also my review of Pelican hardshell cases.

Anyway. Let’s start with my requirements.

My camera bag requirements.

I do a lot of what can generally be termed travel photography, both urban and semi-wilderness. So that’s the basic photographic style that informs my bag needs.

1) I need a bag that’s good for travel, both self-propelled and public transport such as trains and airplanes. The traditional rectangular camera shoulder bag is not cool here. I need something easily carried and something with which I can hike for miles. So a two-strap backpack or rucksack is the only option - a bag with a single shoulder strap, fine as it is for studio and car use, isn’t going to do it.

2) The bag must be able to carry a fair amount of clobber. I often carry two camera bodies, four or five lenses, a small tripod and loads of random accessories.

3) I need something tough that will contain all my crap but which won’t kill my shoulders. This means a sturdy backpack with waist belt.

4) I often travel in cities and places where petty crime is an issue. A bag easily opened by other people is not a good bag. Backpacks can be a real problem here, as it’s often easy for people standing behind you in a queue to surreptitiously unzip your bag and delicately extract your belongings.

5) I don’t want a bag that screams THIS BAG CONTAINS EXPENSIVE CAMERA EQUIPMENT if I can avoid it. A bag emblazoned with huge camera logos on it or in garish and attention-getting colour schemes does not interest me.

6) I frequently fly on budget European airlines. Since I’m not going to check my camera gear into the hold, where it will probably be smashed by gleeful baggage handlers, I need a bag that fits the miserly carry-on limits of these airlines. (55cm x 40cm x 20cm on some airlines like EasyJet, but 56cm x 45cm x 25cm on others, such as British Airways) The bag can just barely be squeezed to fit the EasyJet requirements if the internal dividers are removed, and fits on other airlines just fine.

7) On longer trips I often need to carry a small laptop computer as well.

8) I tend to have a lot of small odds and ends, so a multiplicity of pockets and sleeves and the like is a good thing.

9) Strapping tripods to the outside of the bag is all very well, but there are often times when it’s important to tuck the tripod inside the bag in order to be as inconspicuous as possible. A lot of places don’t allow tripods, but rarely insist on looking inside bags.

10) Finally I want something that looks relatively non-dorky if at all possible.

Bag options that do not work.

So, that narrows things down quite a bit. Here are some popular options that simply don’t work for me.

1) Traditional rectangular shoulder-strap camera bags, as noted, are hopeless for carrying long distances. You need a proper rucksack if you want to do any hiking or even walking around. Such traditional bags also stand out and are noticeable to thieves.

2) The camera bag market is dominated by American-based firms - Tamrac, Lowepro, Tenba, Domke and so on. And they just have no damn clue as to what the European market needs. As far as I could find they don’t make a single decent-sized bag that will fit the strict baggage limits of the cheap and famously parsimonious Euro budget airlines, which as noted were 55cm x 40cm x 20cm before August 2006. The main problem is that their bags are all too fat. 20 cm (or 16cm now) is the limiting dimension. The only thin bags they make are too small in the other dimensions to be useful to me.

3) I normally don’t need a hardshelled hermetically-sealed plastic case like a Pelican box, I don’t want a thief magnet like a sexy metal Mezzi briefcase, and I don’t want a roll-on airline-style wheelie bag, because all three designs are not intended for hiking around with. Though, as noted in my Pelican review, these cases do have their advantages in the post August 2006 world.

Crumpler.

So. After a lot of searching I found something that covers most, though not all, of my requirements - the Whickey and Cox camera bag from Crumpler.

Crumpler are an Australian firm specializing in hip and trendy bags. (well, their stuff seems to be made in China and elsewhere in Asia like every other product these days) They started out making bike courier bags, but have diversified over the years and now sell backpacks, small bags for MP3 players, computer bags and so on. And most interestingly from my point of view, they sell camera bags.

It’s also impossible to mention Crumpler without also remarking on the carefully cultivated sense of wacky whimsy in their marketing. Most of their bags have silly and memorable names, such as the Considerable Embarrassment, the Salary Sacrifice, the Crippy Duck, McBain’s Love Child, the Snauros and, probably my favourite, the Budgie Smuggler.

Their Web sites and catalogues are also highly goofy, featuring photos of nude employees, machine-gun wielding women riding pigs, pushbuttons that allow you to fling mud or poo on the screen, drunken Aussie pub band music and so on. Really fun the first time you visit, and kind of less fun on subsequent visits, especially if you’re looking for some actual specifications of their products. Fortunately in my experience their email response teams, both Australian and European, are extremely friendly and helpful and provided me with a lot of useful information that helped me narrow down my choices. Hooray for that.

Crumpler photo bags.

Crumpler make three basic types of camera bags, excluding the small point and shoot camera pouches. They sell courier-type bags that go over one shoulder, in seven different sizes, they sell backpacks in three different sizes, and they sell dual-function backpacks/rucksacks that have separate camera (lower) and other stuff (upper) compartments, in two different sizes. The names I list here are the Australian/US/Canada names (see next section for why)

The courier-style bags are the Million Dollar Home series. The regular camera backpacks are the Keystone (small), Whickey and Cox (middle) and the Karachi Outpost (large). The half photo backpacks are the Sinking Barge (small) and the Customary Barge (large).

I thought long and hard about whether to get a standard backpack or the half photo backpack, and eventually went for the standard. There are two reasons for this. First, the half photo rucksacks are kind of hugely fat at the bottom (and thin at the top) and thus can cause problems with budget airlines in addition to looking dorky. And second, it’s easy to open the camera half when you’re wearing them. A bag that can’t be opened when it’s worn is a nuisance to use, but it’s also of much higher security. Kind of a crappy tradeoff, but there you go.

Europe and America.

Unfortunately, one confusing factor for European residents like me is that Crumpler Europe/Asia are selling different and differently named versions of these products compared to the North American and Australian company. Apparently this is because the two Crumplers are actually separate companies with somewhat different product lineups.

This fact meant I had spend a bunch of time figuring out which product corresponds to which. As far as I can tell, in terms of regular backpacks, the Puppet is equivalent to the Keystone, the Shrinkle is equivalent to the Whickey and Cox and Brian’s Hot Tub is equivalent to the Karachi Outpost. In the area of half photo backpacks the Euro/Asia products are the Formal Lounge and the the Farmer’s Double; the new Australia/North America products are the Sinking Barge and the Customary Barge. (there is also a Euro bag called the Champ, which seems quite large, but I don’t know how it compares to the ones in the newer lineup) Naturally, as I lived aboard a barge when I wrote this review the former of those two is right out as a matter of principle. Note that to confuse matters further, the current Euro line is equivalent to the older and discontinued Australian/North American line. (or another way to look at it is that the Europeans have not picked up the latest line)

As far as I can tell the main differences between the lines are slight sizing differences (the Euro/older ones are fatter and more bottom-heavy) and colour scheme differences. The Australian/American line comes in a more sedate and grownup set of colour schemes, whereas the Euro line still comes in a trendier set of schemes usually involving two contrasting colours with bright piping. There are other minor differences - the Shrinkle does not ship with a waistbelt (that’s extra money) whereas the Whickey and Cox does. The Aussie/American ones have cast metal zip pulls with streamlined curvy sides whereas the Euro ones have plastic straight-sided zip pulls, etc.

I ended up buying a Whickey and Cox from a Canadian retailer rather than a Shrinkle from the UK for three reasons. First, and most importantly, the Whickey and Cox comes in an elegant and sober black and dark grey colour scheme - very nice. I don’t like the colours in the Euro line at all. (there is a grey and black bag, but the grey is quite light and the piping is bright white) Fine for kids, maybe, but it’s been a little while since I was one of those. Second, the Euro bags seem to have fatter bottom ends, which I don’t much like either. This may be an illusion caused by the colour scheme differences, but they look that way anyway. Finally, the W & C has a waist belt. It did mean buying the bag sight unseen, since the only retailers I could find in London with a decent range of Crumpler camera backpacks (as opposed to Crumpler courier-style or computer bags, which are widely available from various other shops) were Calumet near Euston and Jacobs on New Oxford Street, and they both carry the European product lineup only.

The Whickey and Cox - what’s good about it.

front

The bag meets most of my requirements.

1) The bag is comfortable, and nice to wear for extended periods. I walked for over 8 hours the other day with the bag, and although I was obviously pretty tired and my shoulders ached, I still felt okay, all things considered. Nothing compared to the pain I’d have been in if I’d been wearing my previous lousy rucksack.

The bag is curved, not boxy, and fits the body well. The straps curve around and embrace you snugly, and the back is well padded with fairly dense foam. There’s minimal risk of lumpy camera gear poking through to your back (unless you really jam things in there), as happened all the time with my previous backpack. The bag’s back panel also has a wide groove with no padding down the middle, minimizing pressure on your spine. These are all good things.

2) The bag is moderately capacious. Unfortunately its fashionable curvy shape does make it somewhat narrow at the top, limiting its overall capacity, but it’s not bad. I regularly carry two SLR bodies and three reasonably large lenses (Canon 17-40 4L, 28-40 2.8-4L, 100-300 5.6L) with a random group of small accessories like memory cards, lens hoods, etc.

3) The bag is very very solid. I’ve been using it for a year and a half now and it still seems to be holding up well. Thick synthetic material, well stitched together, remarkable heavy zippers. The straps aren’t sewn on afterwards but are an integral part of the top of the bag. It has chest and waist belts; both removable with strong wraparound Velcro holders. Personally I think chest belts are of only moderate utility, especially if you’re a woman, but they do make it easier to attach the bag to the handle of a wheelie suitcase. The waist belt isn’t the sort of wide heavy-duty affair that can support a Steadicam, but is reasonable given the sort of weight the bag can accommodate. Some people might want to replace it with something padded, though.

Like most camera bags, the W & C has movable internal dividers joined by Velcro. These are made of a light fabric-covered foam, so you can set up different sized areas for lenses, cameras, flash units, etc. There’s also a zipped removable bag for the thin top section. This whole assembly fits inside a sort of frame made of the same material which can easily be lifted out. If you do this then you can use the bag as a regular ol’ backpack rather than a camera bag. The interior fabric comes in a rather unmanly baby blue. It looks a bit daft, but it has the advantage of being a pretty light colour. My previous bag was black inside, which looked cool but made it very annoying trying to find black camera equipment. (it seems that Crumpler may have switched to a less babylike bright orange for later production runs of this bag)

4) The bag has a notable and highly unusual design when it comes to security. The zips to the main compartment, which are quite strong and heavy and have easily gripped curved metal pulls emblazoned with the Crumpler logo, run around the padded section that touches your back. This means that you have to remove the bag and place it outside-down on the ground in order to open it. This has two advantages. First, the part that touches your back doesn’t touch the ground, so you don’t get dirt and crap all over you. And second, and more importantly, it means nobody can open the backpack while you’re wearing it. It’s really reassuring to know that nobody can just grab my gear and go.

I find using this bag seriously reduces some of my constant paranoia in this regard. I can relax just a little more when I’m walking around. Of course, it does nothing to prevent violent or armed muggings, but until Crumpler release the South African-style anti-carjacking backpack with flamethrowers and computer-guided tasers, there isn’t much to do about that. But the drawback is the other side of the same coin - it’s a mild pain in the arse to open it up and take stuff out when you’re out and about. You have to unzip the bag, unzip a mesh cover and then get your stuff. But that’s just how it goes.

5) The bag isn’t obviously a camera bag unless you know it is. This advantage will probably decrease with time as savvy thieves learn what’s what, but it just looks like a regular, if trendy and desirable, backpack. It is covered with the Crumpler dude logo, but three of them are just stitched-on rubber discs; easily removed with a seam ripper if you like. I removed mine, partly because the pristine white rubber discs looked fabulous brand new and immediately looked like crap the first time the bag hit the ground, partly because Crumpler are now well known as a seller of computer bags, making the bag a more visible target, and partly because NINE bloody external logos on one bag, counting the embossed logos on the straps and the engraved white logos on the zipper pulls (one on each side, actually), is a bit of overkill if you ask me.

inside

6) When all the internal partitions are in place it just exceeds the 20cm limit of Euro budget airlines. But you can remove the laptop holder and the partition shell and squash it down to make it fit the size limit cage they have at airports. So it should be fine to get away with it. (similarly the bag’s smaller sibling, the Keystone, should be squashable down to the 16cm if you remove the internal foam frame, though I haven’t tried this so I can’t say for sure)

7) It has an easily removable laptop sleeve that can store most thinner 15" laptops with ease. (eg: MacBook Pros, PowerBook G4s) I don’t think it’ll accommodate a 17" machine, and thicker 15" machines will be a problem. Since I only ever travel with 12" laptops, this is fine by me.

8) The laptop sleeve also has a small zipped side pouch with space for pens and a few other odds and ends. There are also two zipped pockets on the outer sides, but they tend not to hold much when the bag is full of stuff. That’s about it, though - the bag is a bit weak on this score.

9) There is a loop and strap on the outside for attaching a tripod, though I don’t find it particularly convenient. However, if you remove the laptop sleeve and providing the bag isn’t too crammed it is possible to tuck in a very small tripod, such as the small Manfrotto 714 that I use. It’s not a great solution, but if I need to hide the tripod, I can do so.

10) It’s a fairly trendy looking bag. I’m not super crazy about its appearance, as it’s sort of fat at the bottom and sags a lot. But I guess that sort of slouching bottom-heavy pear-shaped (literally, not in the UK slang sense) bag is hip and cool right now. I do like the plain black and grey colour scheme of the W&C. At least the one I bought - there’s another version which is sort of tan and brown. I vastly prefer this to the muted reds and blues of the European line. I suspect that Crumpler Australia/North America realized that if they wanted their products to appeal to the serious photo market, which tends to have an older age demographic, that they needed something a bit more professional looking. It may not be so hip and cool, given its lack of bright stripes or contrasting orange piping, but that’s totally fine by me.

However, there is no escaping the fact that this is a backpack, which is de facto uncool looking compared to a shoulder bag. But there we go.

What’s not so good about the Whickey and Cox.

Well, as noted, nothing is ever perfect. Here are my main complaints about the bag.

- As mentioned above, it’s not a squarish boxy bag like most camera bags. So it can’t hold as much gear as a conventional bag, cool and hip as it looks. It’s the sort of thing you really need to try out in a shop to get a sense of how efficient it is. I don’t mind that it isn’t square, but I do wish the top were just a tiny bit wider.

back

- While the bag is hard for thieves to open it’s also hard for photographers to open. You have to take if off, unzip the back panel and then unzip the mesh cover which holds all the gear in place. This exposes everything for easy access, but takes a couple of steps. For a long time I’ve used a bog standard backpack with a drawstring and flap on the top. It was easy enough to grab gear at the top of the bag without unpacking the whole thing and having it laying on the ground, wide open for all to access. But there’s no way around this, really.

- By far my biggest problem with the bag is that it simply doesn’t have enough pockets. Photographers are always carrying piles of bits and bobs around. Film, memory cards, batteries, filters, remote switches, lens caps, lens cleaners, extension tubes... the list goes on and on. And the Crumpler bags just don’t have enough pouches to store this kind of crap. This is sort of a bummer, really, as it means things either rattle around loose in the bag or you have to stuff everything in small ziplocs or whatever in the main compartment. Either way it’s a nuisance. Personally I feel that the internal mesh cover should have been a clear multi-pocketed flap. This would have meant the flap would also be useful for keeping out dust or whatever. As it is the mesh doesn’t help at all here.

I keep planning on teaming up with my wife to make a gadget carrier project for my bag to fix this major drawback.The plan is to make a trifold fold-out sleeve that can replace the laptop carrier. This bepocketed besleeved holder would then let me store filters, hoods, cards, batteries, etc, handily without having them rattle around loose in the backpack. At least on those occasions when I haven’t got a laptop which me, which is actually more often than not. This type of carrier is something Crumpler should definitely consider making, in my opinion. Of course I haven’t had time to follow through with my grand scheme.

- It’s not expandable and can’t accommodate much else. My regular backpack, as noted, has both a loose drawstring section and a flap, so it can expand to hold all kinds of stuff in an admittedly ungainly fashion. You can even tuck a coat under the flap and carry it around. The Crumpler bag, while svelte and sexy, is not as flexible as this.

- The internal velcro-covered dividers, while removable and easy to move around, are quite thick. The internal shell, shaped vaguely like a baby bassinet, is particularly so. This is great for protecting your gear, but it does mean you can’t store as much stuff inside it. It also adds a fair bit of weight, which again is a problem with budget European airlines, some of whom enforce a draconian 5 kg weight restriction for carry-on luggage. In particular, the laptop sleeve can’t actually accommodate a laptop and a load of camera gear - there just isn’t enough room inside. So don’t count on carrying both a full complement of camera equipment and a computer - you must compromise one way or another.

- The tripod loop and strap is a bit on the lame side. I prefer a pocket on the outside for tucking a tripod foot plus an upper strap to keep it in place.

- There’s nowhere you can easily use for storing, say, a water bottle. The outer pockets are actually quite useless and another minor design flaw. While fairly deep they have very tight openings that you can barely slide your hand in or out, so it’s very awkward to put anything in them. I’m sure someone with large hands wouldn’t be able to do so at all, in fact. Again, this helps preserve the sexy cool lines at the expense of pragmatism, and also makes it more difficult for other people to steal your stuff, but I find I hardly ever use the outside pockets since they just aren’t practical to access.

- The bag is advertised as water resistant, which it generally is - water beads on the surface of the outer fabric. But that only goes so far. I went for a walk in medium-heavy rain the other day and after a couple of hours there was water leakage inside the bag. Nothing too bad, but a bit of water had penetrated the two outer layers of the bag and soaked into the top of the inner shell. It didn’t get any further than that, so my camera was fine, but it was a little disappointing. My old crappy camera bag never did that, because instead of a long water-vulnerable seam running along the top, as the Whickey and Cox has, it had a fold-over flap.

-The bag is not cheap. It seems to be pretty sturdy and well constructed, and given the back pains inflicted by my previous bag, I’m not complaining too much. But gosh, I thought the point of moving the planet’s global industrial production to China (where this bag was made) was to bring us cheap crap! Ignoring the fine benefits of China’s virtually non-existent labour and environmental protection laws, that is. Ah well.

What would make the Whickey and Cox better?

Well, a few things, really.

- Most importantly, the bag just needs more sleeves and pockets for filters and accessories. As noted, I’d like to see the laptop sleeve replaceable with an optional tri-fold accessory holder that you can substitute for times when you don’t need to carry a computer. This would extend its flexibility considerably. Widening the mouth of each external pocket would help a lot too.

- I know the shape of the bag is trendy and all. But I’m not convinced it looks that great. I suppose the drooping heavy low end design is great if you’re going to strap it onto your belly to simulate a beer belly or pregnancy. But it seems a popular enough shape these days.

But it limits what you can put in at the top. I’d prefer to see it slightly wider at the upper end. Not square - that doesn’t look great - but just slightly less tapered. The outer storage pockets also need to be a bit wider and therefore usable.

- Having the internal shell is great for sturdiness. But really the thickness of the outer bag is adequate for me much of the time. I’d be just as happy ditching the inner shell and storing more gear. And losing some weight - the shell is surprisingly heavy. But the dividers don’t velcro in properly without the internal shell, since the inside of the bag isn’t made of a soft fabric that velcro will stick to.

Summary, specs and links

In summary, I’m quite pleased with this bag. It’s come the closest of any camera bag I’ve seen or tried to meeting my particular photographic requirements. And I really love being able to walk around crowded urban areas or stand in a busy queue without worrying that a pickpocket is going to try and open my bag.

The bag is reassuringly heavy 1000D nylon, described as "water resistant". It is definitely not waterproof, however, as noted above. The outer panels on the bag I have are black, with the centre curvy panel a sort of greenish dark grey and black piping, but there is also a version in brown and tan. The lining is 420D ripstop nylon in baby blue. The adjustable separator panels are brushed nylon with Velcro fasteners, again in baby blue. The laptop sleeve is built around a core of probably closed cell foam, with the same ripstop as the lining. The bag has a closed loop and a openable clip loop on the back for a tripod, and a lightly padded rope-like carrying handle. There are chest straps and a thinnish (ie: not padded) waist strap included, and both are detachable. There are two small D rings on the straps, and two thin Scotchlite reflective strips. The outer section has two fairly useless external pockets (deep, but not very accessible because of the narrow openings) with covered zips.

Dimensions are 34x52x25cm outside, though with the inner shell removed you can squash down the bag to 20cm thick or so. The laptop sleeve is 27x40x4cm. With the inner shell removed the bag’s internal dimensions are roughly 51x34x20cm, but since the bag is so curvy that’s just an approximation. The inner shell is about 47x31x16cm at its largest points, but since it’s sort of a flattened egg shape you can’t fit in as much as a box that size could accommodate.

Another review of the Whickey and Cox.

A review of the Crumpler Keystone, which is similar to the Whickey and Cox, but slightly smaller.

A review of the Crumpler Karachi Outpost, which is similar to the Whickey and Cox, but slightly larger.

A review of the Crumpler Shrinkle, which is the Euro/Asian version of the Whickey and Cox. Includes useful photographs demonstrating the carrying capacity of the bag, which is essentially identical to the W & C.

Crumpler Web site specs for the Whickey and Cox.

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