If you’re even a casual hiker or backpacker, the name “Mountainsmith” is probably already familiar to you: the company has long been known for creating some of the most functional, versatile, and long-lasting pieces of outdoor gear on the planet. Making high-grade photo equipment bags is a much more recent and less well known direction in the company’s nearly three-decade history.
I recently had an opportunity to spend some time shooting with the Mountainsmith Sideline II M photo equipment backpack, a revision of the maker’s popular original Sideline model. The Sideline II sports a slightly different access configuration than its predecessor – and slightly less photo-specific space, from all appearance – making it an interesting option for family photographers looking to tote smaller DSLR kits alongside other daily necessities.
Design and Construction
The Mountainsmith Sideline II M is a mid-sized DSLR equipment bag, designed to hold a hobbyist shooter’s kit or a limited selection of pro-grade gear for working photographers who travel light. A rubber gusseted exterior shell is made from nondescript black ballistic nylon, with strong corded zipper pulls a rubberized Mountainsmith logo providing the only splash of color on this very discrete gear hauler. Interior construction is of grey nylon, with double reinforced, weather-sealed zippers providing access to the Sideline’s several pockets.
Though it looks like a traditional backpack, one of the Sideline II’s distinguish design characteristics is the use of a cross-body (rather than the conventional over-the-shoulder) strap. For the uninitiated, instead of two straps that secure the backpack over each shoulder, a larger single strap crosses the wearer’s torso diagonally, connecting to the bag at the wearer’s right shoulder and left hip in this particular example.
This arrangement, seen in a few smaller camera bags over the last few years, allows you to effectively pass the bag from its carrying position on your back under your left arm to the front of your body. Side-mounted main compartment access on the bag makes it easy to grab your gear for a quick shot without ever having to take the Sideline off your shoulder.
In terms of layout, the Sideline II features a large compartment in the center of the bag for photo equipment – complete with user-adjustable dividers for storing lenses or other gear that come pre-configured in an arrangement that allows a camera body and mounted lens to be dropped straight down into the opening.
One interesting feature of the Sideline’s main compartment zipper design is the use of buckle release straps on either side of the zipper. When fastened, these buckles prevent the L-shaped main zip flap from opening completely – preventing you from accidentally dropping your lenses out onto the ground by unzipping the flap too far. I wish every camera bag was this thoughtful!
Several smaller compartments handle general toting chores and provide dedicated space for camera-specific accessories like memory cards.
As seems to be Mountainsmith’s custom, the Sideline II also sports a tethered rain cover.
The snug-fitting black nylon shell doesn’t allow easy access to the bag’s compartments when it’s deployed, but it does stow comfortably and unobtrusively into the space provided for it when not in use.
In terms of build quality, everything’s stitched up super-tight using innocuous if rugged feeling materials – all suggestive of Mountainsmith’s heritage as an outdoor equipment manufacturer. After weeks of field work with the bag and lots of intentional abusiveness, I’ve yet to pull a zipper out of place or loosen a seam.
I’m also impressed with Mountainsmith’s quick-release buckles: wherever they source these basic looking black connectors from, they’re stout. The main strap buckle has, somewhat astoundingly, survived every torture test we could think of to throw at it just short of being run over with a car, and I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if it survived even that.
Thin padding on the main (cross) strap doesn’t feel particularly nice, but certainly seems to get the job done. I packed along as much gear as the Sideline II could conceivably hold, and even with the total bag weight topping 15 pounds I didn’t feel mauled by the bag after a day hike to snap some wildflower shots. In the same vein, I would have liked to see something a little more robust protecting the gear on the front side of the bag; the back and sides are all much more thickly built.
A surface with more grip on the underside of the main strap might have helped prevent the bag from wanting to rotate around unintentionally, but would make it harder to swing the Sideline under your arm for main compartment access.
A small secondary strap that travels under the wearer’s right arm to buckle into the cross strap does an acceptable job of holding the bag in place on your back when carrying; buckling the secondary strap and releasing the main strap buckle also allows the Sideline to be toted like a traditional backpack, albeit one with a single shoulder over-the-shoulder strap.
On the surface, the Sideline II’s basic black look doesn’t do anything to advertise its ruggedness (as an aside, nor does it do anything to advertise its contents – a fact that I appreciate). Yet I’ve put this bag through more punishment over the last month than any bag I’ve ever tested in an effort to find its structural limits, and still it looks basically like new. (As proof, the product photos for this review were taken after I finished field testing the review unit.)
Cargo Space and Capacity
I like the Sideline for its svelte exterior, but a slim profile and lots of compartmentalization inside the bag don’t translate well into space for lots of large lenses. The Sideline’s drop-in arrangement makes length the primary limiting factor in determining whether a lens will stow or not: a camera with a battery grip and an 18-50ish constant aperture zoom just fits inside the Sideline’s main compartment zipper track. Got a Canon 5D with a 24-70mm f/2.8 mounted that you want to haul? Forget about it. Not happening with this bag in its default layout.
I never came up with an arrangement that fully worked for long lenses, but it should be noted that the divider that separates the main and top compartments can be removed (it’s anchored with Velcro), allowing shooters to work a single big telephoto lens down the vertical length of the bag if needed. As noted, though, coming up with a logical arrangement for the rest of your gear with a huge lens taking up the bulk of the Sideline’s prime real estate was a geometry puzzle I was never able to solve. If you have an occasional need to be able to haul big glass, the Sideline can be made to work, though even with this bit of flexibility it’s less than ideal.
Unless birding or sports photography is your thing, however, enthusiast photographers should find the Sideline M to be a perfect match for the average hobbyist’s kit. I had no trouble packing our recently review Olympus E-520, three consumer-grade lenses, a flash unit, and several other small accessories into the Sideline’s main compartment.
In another nod to family vacation shooters, there’s more general cargo space in the Sideline than most bags of this size offer. A capacious top pocket with half-moon zip access is, other than a small elasticized net against the back of the bag, free from dividers or obstructions. I crammed a compact telephoto prime into the space (with some effort, I might add), but since it’s not configured to be photo-equipment specific, the compartment could work equally well for hauling a wallet and keys, snacks, sunscreen, or any other essential that your shooting day requires. As noted previously, the divider between this space the main compartment can also be quickly and easily folded down if desired, essentially doubling the capacity of the central storage area.
A long, skinny side-length zippered pocket opposite the main compartment access is the ideal shape for storing documents, passports, or a memory card wallet. Using the bag on-shoulder, this pocket is the hardest to access (as it faces the ground when you swing the bag around your shoulder to access the main compartment), making it a poor choice for storing anything you need to get at frequently.
Like other Mountainsmith photo bags we’ve looked at, the Sideline makes heavy use of dividing and subdividing space. Lots of pockets and compartments allow for lots of organization (if you’re the bag organizing type), but with user-configurable dividers throughout the main compartment, the Sideline is still extremely flexible in its setup on the whole.
Getting the Sideline II out for some actual shooting, I found it as comfortable as any single-shoulder bag out there. The key in this case, as with most every bag that puts all of its weight at a single point, is not to overload it. Hence, the Sideline’s somewhat limited capacity (at least in the view of gear-horse shooters like me) can be a lifesaver, forcing you to leave behind those unnecessary accessories that would have just been a source of sore shoulders later.
Actually, that should be “shoulder” – singular. The primary complaint that I have with single-shoulder bags is one that relates to their intrinsic design, and thus would be impossible to remedy: you can’t evenly distribute the “wear and tear” on your shoulders, as the bag’s fundamental design means that it can only be worn across the right one. As comfortable as the Sideline II is – even with too much gear in tow – this inability to distribute the load seems to bring on the tiredness earlier in a long shooting day than with traditional two-shoulder bag (or even single-shoulder ones like messenger bags, which can be switched from one side to the other periodically).
Of course, this discomfort for long shooting days is balanced by the convenience of the single strap concept. The ability to whisk the bag under your arm, grab your camera, and shoot in almost no time is quite nice, and the fact that your bag never has to touch the ground to get at your gear keeps the bag (and thus your clothes) cleaner and your gear safer (no chance of leaving it behind) in the long run.
As noted previously, if short-term wear testing gives us any fair indication, long-term reliability with the Sideline II seems like it will be a non-issue. The bag’s basic but extremely rugged finish should look handsome for a long time to come.
My nits to pick with the Sideline II have mostly been outlined above (i.e. its inability to deal efficiently with long telephoto lenses), but a few other annoyances showed up after some use time. The Sideline II’s tripod loop (at least I’m assuming that’s what that big rubber-reinforced pass-through on the bag’s exterior face is for) might be useful for hauling a mini-tripod or very light travel unit, but it’s odd positioning in the dead center of the bag leads to some odd balance when hanging a larger set of legs.
As with other things about the Sideline, just keep reminding yourself that this bag is for traveling light, even where tripods are concerned, and you should be fine. More felt attachment points for the dividers in the bag’s main compartment might also be a plus, but it’s certainly not a necessity.
In spite of my general dislike of cross-body packs as a concept, I found the Sideline II to be a surprisingly effective, enjoyable gear caddie. Its inconspicuous looks, rugged build, and carefully thought-out touches (like the ability to use it with either a traditional backpack strap, the cross-body strap, or both, for instance) may be enough to convert even the skeptics over to Mountainsmith’s way of thinking. If you can pare your kit down to the Sideline II M’s slightly scrawny space constraints, Mountainsmith’s latest is an excellent team player.