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Reviews > Cameras > Photography Accessories > M Rock Camera Bags > Test Report by Richard Lyon

M-ROCK CAMERA BAGS
Test Series by Richard Lyon

Initial Report June 28, 2009
Field Report late September 16, 2009
Long Term Report late November 24, 2009

PERSONAL DETAILS and BACKPACKING BACKGROUND

Male, 62 years old
Height: 6' 4" (1.93 m)
Weight: 205 lb (91 kg)
Email address: rlyon AT gibsondunn DOT com
Home: Dallas, Texas USA
Hat size: 7 5/8 US

I've been backpacking for 45 years and regularly in the Rockies since 1986.  I do at least one week-long trip every summer, and often take three-day trips.  I'm usually camping in alpine terrain, at altitudes 5000 to 10000 ft (1500 - 3000 m).  I prefer base camp backpacking, a long hike in with day trips from camp, but I do forced marches too.  Recently I've been actively reducing my pack weight, though I still always sleep in a floored tent and tend to favor my favorite camp conveniences over minor weight savings.

INITIAL REPORT
June 28, 2009

PRODUCT DESCRIPTION and DETAILS

Three bags and a beltM-ROCK makes bags for cameras and camcorders, backpacks and sling-bags for camera users, and accessories that allow a backcountry photo enthusiast to mix and match to make up his or her own Modular Attachment System.  M-ROCK kindly furnished me four pieces for this test: its Yellowstone, Niagara, and Ozark camera bags and The Modular Belt that works with any of M-ROCK's bags.

A bag is not merely a bag.  The largest of M-ROCK's bags, the Yellowstone (MSRP: $54 US), includes two shoulder straps that can be clipped onto the bag to make the bag a small backpack; or with one of these the Yellowstone may be carried as a shoulder bag.  The Niagara ($34) and Ozark ($32) each have a single clip-on shoulder strap that allows for a shoulder-bag style carry – bag on the right hip and strap across the left shoulder.  Each bag has a large Velcro loop on the back to permit attachment to The Modular Belt ($30) or other belt. 

The Modular Belt has two strips of 2-inch (5 cm) wide 600 denier nylon webbing, each connected to a "thick closed cell foam" with "mesh fabric backing" pad at the rear.  The Belt may be adjusted to fit waists from 24-48 inches (61-122 cm) and is buckled with a heavy quick-release buckle in the front.  Each end of the padded piece has a small zippered pocket.  The Yellowstone (and according to M-ROCK any other M-ROCK bag intended for an SLR camera) can be affixed to the pad to make a fanny pack and any M-ROCK medium bag (including the Niagara and Ozark) attaches over the Belt's webbing at the left or right.

Manufacturer: M-ROCK
Web Address: www.m-rock.com  This informative website has a very useful "Bag Search" feature that will quickly identify the properly-sized bag for scores of different cameras.

Dimensions and weight: The Yellowstone is the largest of the three bags, with listed inside dimensions of 7 x 6.75 x 4.5 in (17.5 x 16.8 x 11.25 cm) [height by width by depth].  It weighs 16.6 oz (471 g) without its pack straps.  The Niagara, with listed inside dimensions of 6.25 x 4 x 3 in (15.5 x 10 x 7.5 cm), weighs 7.9 oz (223 g) without pack strap.  The Ozark has listed inside dimensions of 4 x 4.5 x 3 in (10 x 11.25 x 7.5 cm), and weighs 6.9 oz (195 g) without pack strap.  The Modular Belt weighs 6.1 oz (174 g).  I verified that all listed inside dimensions are accurate – to be expected from a manufacturer who has paid so much attention to detail in design of his products.

Materials:  Not listed on M-ROCK's website, but the exterior of each bag appears to be heavy-duty Cordura-type fabric with the colored panels made in a webbing-style grain.

Colors: Each of the bags is mostly black with a front panel in a selected color, sage green on mine.  Black with navy, black with red, or all black are also available.  The Modular Belt is black.

Warranty:  Lifetime warranty for defects in workmanship or materials based upon normal use.

Features: There are many.  Each bag has a handle on top, a Velcro strip on the back, plastic clips for the shoulder straps at the top rear corners, and a plethora of pockets.  Common to all bags are a front compartment, a main compartment, a top that extends over the main compartment and connects to a quick-release buckle, a zippered compartment on the underside of the lid containing a lens cloth on an attached cord, a zippered pocket on the outside of the lid (in front), a heavy-duty handle sewn to the top of the lid, and a Weather Jacket attached to a cord inside the front pocket.  The Weather Jacket is a waterproof plastic pouch that is large enough to envelop the entire bag.  Yellowstone with Weather Jacket at rightThe Yellowstone has three additional compartments inside its front pocket, D-rings (two on each side) as yet more ways to attach it to a pack or one of its mates, and two sewn-in straps about an inch (2.5 cm) from the bottom of the main compartment to hold a long lens in place when a camera is stored.  Each bag's main compartment is lined with a soft corduroy fabric.

First Impressions

That it's taken so long to describe the features indicates to me that these are bags for the serious photographer, and that M-ROCK has devoted considerable attention to every engineering detail.  Particularly impressive, in my opinion, are the Weather Jacket, lens cloth, and soft lining on all compartments.  Also the robust construction - these bags look like they will protect a camera and accessories from all but a river dunking or direct artillery hit.  All are larger and heavier than the inexpensive canvas pouch I occasionally use for my Nikon point-and-shoot (which more often lives in a shirt or trouser pocket).  Not a bad idea to take care to protect an expensive investment; testing will tell if on an arduous backpack I'm willing to take the extra weight and bulk in return for organization and security.

I tried the Niagara and Ozark on the Modular Belt while wearing first my overnight backpack and then my expedition pack.  In both instances I immediately noticed a difference in wearing two hip belts; perhaps that will become second nature after frequent usage.  The M-ROCK bags also attached easily to the hip belt on each of my packs, should I decide to forgo a second cinch.  The Yellowstone is too large to wear as a fanny pack when wearing a backpack but it can be fitted on the side.  It fits snugly and comfortably under my preferred day pack. 

By no definition am I a professional photographer but when wearing the M-ROCK bags all together I surely look like one.

Likes

Sturdy and functional construction, the liners especially
Many useful details
The Weather Jacket
The lens cleaner
Bags' interchangeability

Concerns

Weight
Possible overkill – more features than I'll use

FIELD REPORT
September 16, 2009

I have come to appreciate the M-ROCK bags as field-worthy protection for my cameras during several day hikes and two backpacking trips.  Field use has borne out my first impressions of this system as sturdy yet easy to use.

Field Conditions

I spent a week in Big Timber, Montana in early July with a friend and her two nieces, immediately preceded by a three-day, two-night backpack to Silver Lake, in the Absaroka Mountain Range.  Temperatures were wonderful, mid-70s F (~23 C) during the day, dipping to just above freezing at night, with a thundershower each afternoon.  I wore the Ozark on the hip belt of my R2 Telemaster pack (separately tested and reviewed on this site), with my Nikon Coolpix point-and-shoot camera stowed inside.

After my friends arrived we took three day hikes in the Absarokas and Crazy Woman Mountains, near Big Timber, in very similar weather conditions except that a brief hailstorm preceded the afternoon shower on two days.  With the same camera I used the Ozark with the Modular Belt, as I considered the hip belt on my featherweight ZPack Blast 18 day pack too fragile for a camera bag.

I took the Yellowstone on a four day llama-supported base camp backpack in, appropriately, the Slough Creek Valley in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, in early August.  This time I took a larger Nikon camera, non-digital, for some black and white photography, storing a telephoto lens in the top compartment.  The day before this trip I took my digital Nikon, in the Ozark, on a fishing float on the Teton River near Driggs, Idaho.  We strapped the case on to one of the gunwales, inside the boat, using the rear belt loop and a hook-and-loop strip on the boat.

Observations

Ease of use.  The Modular Belt is easy to adjust and, once adjusted, stays the same size – no stretching and the loose end doesn't slip through the Fas-Tec buckle.  I had no problem wearing it just below the skinny Cuben-fiber hip belt on my Blast pack.  Each of the bags attaches easily to Modular Belt, and can be placed anywhere on my hip, so that I can arrange it so the bag won't interfere with pocket access or any other item at waist level.  This is especially important for me, as several of my packs (including the Blast and Telemaster) have hip belt pockets that prevent an accessory at that point.  Each bag has opened easily, often needing only one hand to do so.

Features.  As anticipated there are more than I need.  I do like the small pockets on each bag; they are handy places to store a spare memory card or set of batteries.  The attached lens cloth makes it easy to remember to wipe the lens each time I extract the camera for a picture, and when I remember to be careful I store the camera with its lens shielded by the cloth.  The spare lens fit nicely into the Yellowstone's top pocket.

Durability.  M-ROCK takes its name from owner-designer Michael Rockwell but it could just as well be named for its construction, which is solid as a rock.  These are great cases for protecting a camera from the perils of the trail.  On my first hike with the Ozark I opened the front pocket to wrap the Weather Jacket around the case at the first drop of rain, but when hiking with the teenagers I forgot.  No matter; the hard fabric case repelled the rain and hail and kept the camera completely dry.  On the fishing float without the Weather Jacket the occasional splash on this gentle river did no damage.  I didn't do much bushwhacking on any of my hikes but did scrape the cases (Ozark and Yellowstone) against some trail brush and the occasional rock, yet the cases look as good as new.  The other components are durable too.  All stitching on the Modular Belt remains intact, and I've not had a plastic snap crack or break.

Size.  My one reservation about the M-ROCK system is that it's large.  I'm not particularly weight-conscious and don't mind the marginal increase in weight, but even the smallest bag, the Ozark, has more capacity and bulk than I need for either of my digital point-and-shoot cameras.  The fact that I have a ready alternative – a shirt or cargo shorts pocket – that adds no weight has prompted me to leave the Ozark in my duffel bag or the trunk of my car on two other backpacking trips. 

That choice definitely put the camera at increased risk; should I purchase a DSR camera I've had my eye on I'm likely to bear the bulk to protect my investment.  I should note that my picture taking falls firmly into the "amateur" category, and a camera's place in my backpacking kit is to help remember the fun, not prepare panoramas for the gallery.  And I don't mean to suggest that any component of the M-ROCK system is unduly heavy or bulky.  The Yellowstone is lighter than the old leather case that has guarded my Nikon for years, and the tough modern materials on the belt, straps, and cases are reasonably lightweight.  They could be made of lighter-weight material, but I applaud M-ROCK's preference for protection over a marginal weight saving.  For me the issue has been whether to take a case at all, not which case to take.

Summary.  After eleven days' backcountry use my assessment of the M-ROCK system is entirely favorable.  The bags look sharp, each component does what it's supposed to do very well, and the modular approach offers considerable flexibility in size, configuration, and storage.  My overkill assessment is based more on my own camera preferences than any shortcoming in the product.

LONG TERM REPORT
November 24, 2009

Two more months with the M-ROCK system have confirmed the assessment that concludes my Field Report.  I will quickly recommend this well-made, rugged, modular system to any serious backcountry – or front country – photographer.

Field Conditions

My travel has been somewhat limited over the past two months, but I have worn one or more M-ROCK bags on a house-hunting trip in the Big Timber-McLeod, Montana area and a family event in Wilmington, Delaware in September, a day hike in the Spanish Pyrenees in mid-October, and several day hikes around North Texas in October and November.  Temperatures varied from near-freezing to 90 F (22 C), and several of the Texas hikes took place in the rain (one of them in a thundershower).  On one day hike I carried both the Yellowstone and Ozark; on all others I carried either the Ozark or Niagara only.  My hike in Spain was only a couple of hours and I didn’t carry a pack, so I wore the Ozark with the shoulder strap.

Observations

The thundershower allowed more use of the Weather Jacket, and once again everything was dry despite thirty minutes’ direct exposure to the rain and another couple of hours of occasional contact with wet brush.  I’ve used the Ozark enough now that I am familiar with my personal filing system inside: camera in the main compartment, spare memory card in the back of the front pocket, spare batteries in the front of the front pocket, and instruction sheet in the zippered compartment on the lid of the main compartment.  I’m approaching that with the Yellowstone, which I am still using for my old non-digital Nikon camera and accessory lenses.  I like being able to keep all or most camera equipment in one place, and the Niagara or Ozark makes that easy for my point-and-shoot cameras and the Yellowstone for my larger Nikon. 

The attached lens cleaner is so useful that I’ve come to take it for granted.  The same can be said for the interchangeability of the bags on the Modular Belt, another very useful (and not often found) feature.  I have on one occasion slipped the Ozark on the belt holding up my trousers.  On this canvas webbing belt the bag stayed nicely in place and was easy to attach and remove. 

I have also been impressed by how comfortable the M-ROCK system is.  The Modular Belt has stayed just above my waist without slippage or any chafing, even when worn over only a thin cotton tee shirt.  At times I’ve almost forgotten that I’m wearing it.

The remainder of this Long Term Report is a reference to the commentary in my Field Report on durability, size, and top-flight performance of the bags’ chief duty – protecting their valuable contents and keeping them close to hand.  That and durability deserve special praise.  All bags and the Modular Belt look as good as new, and all hardware is intact.  I expect to be using the M-ROCK system for many years. 

That use, though, will much more likely be on day hikes and expected photo ops (day trips and events when I know there will be something I want to capture on film or image) rather than backpacking trips.  The system simply takes up more space than suits my style on a backcountry trip.  The fact that I often carry fishing gear on backpacks sadly makes the problem worse.

I repeat that this is not intended as criticism in any way, merely my personal preference, and I end my Test Report by repeating that this is a terrific product.  My thanks to M-ROCK and BackpackGearTest.org for the chance to test it.



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