Vanguard are well known for their tripod and binocular ranges, but they were a manufacturer I initially overlooked when searching for a photo backpack. Being a keen walker, I spend a lot of my spare time in and around Derbyshire’s Peak District so it goes without saying that I always have a camera with me. Up until a few years ago, I had been using large 55 and 80 litre backpacks to lug my walking and camera gear around in. But none offered dedicated protection for my cameras and lenses. So after writing down a few pre-requisites, I began an evaluation of what seemed like an endless array of different models. My pre-requisites were;
- That a material other than the generic ‘same old, same old’ ballistic nylon is used, preferably with a leather trim.
- A detachable rain cover.
- A dedicated well-padded section to store camera gear.
- Comfortable wide shoulder and belt straps.
- The ability to carry a one litre thermos flask, food and a small amount of clothing.
- A point to attach a tripod.
- The ability to add additional small pouches from the range
- Earth colour, i.e. brown, tan or dark green.
- Designed as a walking backpack that takes into consideration my photo gear, not the other way around.
After many hours of searching it started to feel like the only way I would achieve my requirement was to create my own bag. Most manufacturers managed to hit 85% of my pre-requisites, but they typically failed on the fabric used, colour and design. What I secretly hankered after was a Billingham designed pack that looked traditional and made from top quality materials. They used to produce one but this has long since been discontinued and even if it was still available, failed on some of my other requirements.
It was while sourcing a new pair of binoculars that I stumbled upon the Arlen 59 by Vanguard. OK, so much of it is still produced from a type of polyester but the main protective flap is similar to canvas. Aesthetically, it looked as close to traditional as I was going to get and even finished with tan leather fastenings, handles and trim. The colour was good too – a very earthy Khaki and dark brown. Apart from the material, it met all of my other requirements so I took the plunge and placed my order.
And I was not disappointed when it arrived; typical of this style of pack, it is divided into two sections, the lower part being the storage area for camera gear. The material that separates the two sections can be removed if required, making one large pack. The dividers and outer shell of the camera section are well padded with a well cushioned bottom. To further this protection, anti-shock feet are deployed on the underside. As the Arlen 59 is not specifically a camera bag, dedicated space for photo gear is limited, but I have no problem getting a camera body, two or three lenses plus my binoculars into it. External to the lower section is a zippered pocket that holds small items such as pocket knife, batteries, filters, cleaning cloths, memory cards, film etc.
The upper section is much larger that the lower as it is designed to hold those hiking essentials such as the three ‘f’s’ (fleece, flask and food). A one litre capacity flask only just fits in and too many other items will result in not being able to zip the top section up fully. Three small zippered pockets are included in which further little items can be stored. External but adjacent to the upper section is a larger zippered expanding pocket that can swallow up more small items…I tend to keep my wallet, keys and first aid kit in here. At a push a lens or flashgun could be stored here, but it runs the risk of damage as the pocket is not padded. Protecting the front of the pack is a large storm flap manufactured from a weatherproof canvas type fabric that is secured by a quick release brass buckle stitched to a supple tan leather strap. The storm flap has its own zippered pocket that is just large enough to store a map, although not quite big enough for a laminated waterproof version – it will still fit but is difficult to zip up. Because of this I tend to leave the pocket open and also use it to stash fast food such as fruit or muesli bars.
Several D-rings are fixed at various points to the pack. These can be used to secure walking poles or a tripod, although dedicated tripod straps are included by means of an ingenious little storage area on the pack’s underside. The D-rings are also used as points to attach Arlen accessory pouches; I purchased one of these and attached it to one of the shoulder straps, allowing quick access to a mobile phone. Similar to the pack, and typical of the Arlen’s attention to detail, it contains its own rain cover that can be pulled easily from the underside. And these are not ordinary rain covers; one side is dark and waterproofed against inclement weather, the other is a light grey cover, intended for use when the sun is beating down, theoretically reducing the temperature of the pack. Both are detachable for separate washing and drying.
I guess a backpack is only as good as it is comfortable, so this is where it really needs to shine. Having used much larger packs for hiking, I am careful to ensure the shoulder, chest and waist straps are suitable for a long days walking. They should be wide, well-padded and bear much of the load. Similarly the back section should allow for ventilation and sit away from a person’s back. The Arlen 59 scored very favourably in this area and I can usually wear it all day with no problems. However, there have been one or two occasions when I have just not been able to get it to sit comfortably on my shoulders. It usually results in me releasing the tension on all straps and re-tightening them. If this fails I resort to re-arranging the items stored in the top section. Experience has taught me that this is one of those packs that is best used at ¾ capacity. Overfilling it will cause grief to the wearer.
Overall, my experience of the Arlen 59 has been very positive and I commend Vanguard for coming as close to the perfect backpack I have yet come across. Yes, it has a couple of flaws, notably the outside ‘map’ pocket and the main inner compartment; they both need to be just a centimetre larger to allow easy stowage of a laminated map and provide the teensy-weensy but of extra space needed to fully zip the compartment up over a one litre steel flask. Having said this, it has been my ‘go-to’ day walking pack for a few years now. Oddly, Vanguard have since discontinued this product range in favour of more ‘me too’ products that, in my opinion, are not as eye-catchingly original.
Whether it will last as long as my Billingham 335, time will tell. But it seems robust and after years out in the field, shows little signs of use.