The Boreal 50L backpack ($450 in the US) from PolarPro is a versatile camera backpack designed for the great outdoors. It includes a large, customizable cavity for oversized camera bodies, lenses, and other accessories, a rugged exterior shell, plus plenty of expandable storage space on top for clothes, food and other outdoor essentials.
Is Boreal the best new camera backpack for outdoor photography and videography? Let's find out.
- Beautiful design and construction
- Durable nylon exterior
- Two exterior pouches for tripods, water bottles, and tall items
- Deep interior dividers for taller cameras and lenses
- Carry-on compatible, expandable to 50L
- One size fits all. Fixed harness.
- Dividers are stiff, insufficient velcro
- Rain cover must be purchased separately
- Comparatively expensive
Boreal design and aesthetics
Boreal is constructed using DWR treated 600D nylon. The former is a water resistant chemical coating commonly used in rain jackets and outdoor apparel, while the latter is a thicker and stronger grade of nylon than what most backpacks use. The thicker 600D material does make the bag a little heavier than normal (half a pound when empty), but on the upside the material is stronger and more durable.
To me, Boreal's dark black, semi-gloss finish, asymmetrical front zipper, and its square, muted PolarPro logo reminds me of a black leather Belstaff motorcycle jacket. It has a harder, more contemporary edge than most outdoor backpacks. Boreal's look may not appeal to everyone, but I think it has loads of style. It's simply a cool looking bag.
Boreal exterior and dimensions
Boreal is marketed as a "50L" bag, but that's only true when its roll-top is expanded; adding an additional 15 liters of cargo space. With the roll-top collapsed, Boreal is a 35L backpack measuring 25 inches tall, 14.5 inches wide, and 8 inches deep. These dimensions make Boreal carry-on compatible with all airlines around the world.
Boreal has two thin pockets on the front for small items, a waterproof "key-drop pocket", and a padded laptop sleeve that accommodates laptops up to 16 inches. In contrast to most camera backpacks, PolarPro places the laptop sleeve on the front instead of behind the shoulder straps. This makes the back flap of the backpack slimmer and easier to unzip, but it does provide less protection for the laptop. Even so, I think the move makes sense since few users carry laptops when out in the field shooting.
Keys, earbuds, passports, cards, and other items can be stored in the "key-drop" pocket. Since this pocket is most susceptible to rainfall, PolarPro smartly used a waterproof zipper to protect its contents.
On top is a collapsable compartment that adds 15 liters of storage space for additional items that won't easily fit elsewhere. For me, this is one of Boreal's best features, for I always struggle to pack and carry rain jackets, hats, gloves, food, and other items when carrying non-expandable camera backpacks.
Both sides of Boreal include large pockets for carrying water bottles, tripods or other tall items. These pockets aren't made of the same 600D nylon material used elsewhere in the bag, but rather a thin, stretchy, spandex-like material. Perhaps this was to decrease weight, or make adding and removing items easier, but I do worry the material could eventually rip open or pull away from the bag. Impossible to know without additional time and use with the bag, so I'll update this review in the future if anything comes up.
Alongside the side pouches are three lateral straps for securing tall items at the bottom, middle and top. This is perfect for photographers like me who use tall tripods, for the bag's three straps do a great job of securing the tripod and minimizing lateral sway when hiking. My extra tall ProMediaGear TR344L fit perfectly, so any other tripod should work just as well.
Speaking of the side pockets, there's a zippered opening underneath the right one to access Boreal's interior. This provides quick access to a camera or other items through without taking the bag off and unzipping the entire backside.
A clever lattice accessory is included with Boreal for mounting bulky items to the front of the bag. The grid is made of tightly woven nylon and clips onto five loops stitched into the bag. While useful, I found the lattice surprisingly difficult to attach and detach. Either the clips need to be a little larger, or the loops need to be a little thinner. Perhaps PolarPro could look into this and make changes in the future. But once its on, it's a great solution for carrying more gear on the outside of the bag.
Boreal harness and straps
Boreal has a fixed harness, which means its shoulder straps and waist belt cannot be repositioned higher or lower to accommodate different torso lengths. The shoulder straps are stitched directly into the bag (pictured below). Boreal is only sold in one size as well.
This for me is the main weakness of Boreal, for if the backpack had adjustable shoulder straps, the waist belt could then sit higher or lower for taller or shorter users respectively, and provide a better, more comfortable fit overall when wearing the pack for extended periods of time.
Boreal's sternum strap may be raised and lowered, but cannot be removed. I like this, for I always use sternum straps when carrying a camera backpack, and with Boreal there's zero chance the straps will fall off or get lost when hiking.
The bottom has thick, padded lumbar support, plus a waist belt that is larger and thicker compared to conventional camera bags. Each strap also has a single zippered pocket for carrying a phone, lip balm, earbuds, or anything small. For lighter loads, the waist strap may be quickly removed through a simple velcro attachment inside the slot.
Overall, Boreal's harness is more or less the same as other one size fits all camera backpacks, which to me feels like a missed opportunity. This is especially true considering that Boreal was designed for use outdoors in rugged environments, where a fair amount of hiking for hours at a time typically takes place. Polar Pro claims Boreal "was rigorously stress tested to carry loads of 65 lbs", but that amount of weight would absolutely require a proper fit.
Users of average build and height may be perfectly comfortable wearing Boreal, but users (like me) with larger or smaller torsos may struggle to properly place the waist belt on their hips and get a more comfortable fit.
Boreal interior and layout
Boreal's main cavity is accessed through the back of the bag. The zippers use high quality YKK zippers with cream colored grab cords that match the interior. The back flap is skinnier and more svelte than other camera bags, thanks in part to the aforementioned laptop sleeve being relocated to the front of the bag. Inside, the flap has three flat, zippered pouches for small, thin items (eg, memory cards, microfiber cloths, etc).
Boreal provides ~2000 cubic inches of interior space for storing gear. This is larger than other camera bags I've used including the Manfrotto Flexloader (~1400 cubic inches) and LowePro 450 AW (~1200 cubic inches). If your goal is to pack as much camera gear as possible into an airplane carry-on bag, Boreal will absolutely do the job.
Numerous padded, velcro dividers may be moved and re-configured to create a variety of layouts to accommodate camera bodies and lenses of all shapes and sizes. There are four types of divider, each 11mm thick and 6.25" deep. The latter is an inch deeper than the dividers used in most other camera backpacks, which helps larger camera bodies and lenses fit more comfortably and provides better protection against damage.
Boreal's dividers appear to do a good job of protecting gear, but their material is stiff and their velcro tabs are thin. There's little affordance and flexibility in their design, so when pushing a lens or camera body into a fitted divider, the velcro can easily detach. This can be really frustrating when creating custom gear layouts. The dividers would be easier to use and stick together better if their high density foam were less stiff and their velcro strips were larger.
For additional packing options, PolarPro also offers 10 liter and 20 liter collapsible packing cubes ($40 and $50 respectively). These are empty pouches ideal for clothes, accessories or other items. Both packing cubes are constructed using the same 600D nylon material and water-resistant DWR coating as the Boreal backpack.
The cubes are durable and high quality, but don't offer anything particularly unique aside from fitting Boreal's interior perfectly (and looking good together). These are high quality and well made, but considering their price tag, some users may be perfectly happy using generic, cheaper packing cubes.
For better protection against heavy rain, PolarPro also sells a Boreal Rain Fly ($20) made from 6800 PU 1500MM waterproof material. Considering that Boreal was designed for use outdoors in harsh conditions, I'm surprised the Rain Fly isn't included with the Boreal backpack (and integrated into its design). I own much cheaper camera backpacks from other companies that include rain covers.
Finally, there's the Boreal Tech Pouch ($80). This is also constructed using the same 600D nylon material of the Boreal backpack, and provides a convenient pouch for storing small items. PolarPro didn't provide me with this product for review, so I can't comment on whether it's worth buying.
Wrapping it up
PolarPro has earned a strong reputation in the photo and video community for their smart, polished product design, and Boreal is no exception. Some of my favorite features include the two exterior pouches for carrying a tripod and water bottle simultaneously, the two sets of lateral straps for securing tall items on the side of the bag, and the collapsable top for carrying additional cargo.
Boreal's main flaws, in my view, are its non-adjustable harness, stiff velcro dividers, and comparatively high price tag. Otherwise, Boreal is a solid backpack that can carry loads of gear, looks fantastic, and should hold up for many years. Speaking of durability, Boreal is covered by PolarPro's "Adventure Assurance" warranty in case anything goes wrong during the lifetime of the product.