|LowePro Road Runner AW
by Jim McGee
OK, no suspense. If you are a traveling photographer, or a photographer who does a lot of traveling, this bag does an amazing number of things right and may well be THE travel bag for you.
But, if you're not traveling with a SERIOUS amount of gear, then the weight and size of this bag may leave you searching for other options. Take a look at the pros and cons spelled out below to see if this might be the right bag for you
When unpacking the Road Runner AW from it's box, my initial impression was "big sucker". Living with it for a while has done nothing to change that impression, but you do begin to appreciate it's virtues and it's apparent size diminishes with use and familiarity.
The first thing to understand is that this isn't just an internal frame backpack - it's a system. It's the first bag I've ever used that came with an owner's manual. Not only does it come with one but you actually need it!
Lets start with some bag basics. This is an AW bag, which in LowePro's lineup means it's an all weather bag. To paraphrase Henry Ford it's available in any color you want as long as you want black. The outer fabric is 600D Endura and 600D ripstop. I have a LowePro bag made from these fabrics and it's taken an amazing amount of abuse in dirt, sand, snow, heat, cold, and abrasion and it still looks good. I managed to get caught hiking in a mild drizzle and the Road Runner shed water nicely, although if you're going to be out in a downpour there is a rain cover included (with it's own pouch for easy packing) that covers the whole bag. Generous storm flaps cover the self healing zippers. The zippers are coated to prevent binding and they hold up well over time.
The Road Runner AW is actually two bags. The main rolling pack and a smaller daypack that can be worn separately or attached to the backpack via D rings and snap locks.
Some other notable features on the outside of the backpack are the adjustable/removable, tripod mount, and multiple attachments for LowePro's Street & Field system accessories. There are custom accessory pouches on the sides and a belt that allows you to mount anything from a water bottle to a cell phone onto your pack, allowing you to further customize this versatile pack.
The Road Runner AW was a clean sheet of paper project for LowePro. They approached it questioning all the normal assumptions about rolling packs. The place where that is most obvious is in the handle placement. Handles for rolling packs have to go against your body right? Not according to LowePro. Handle hardware has a tendency to dig into your back, and be uncomfortable if you're wearing the pack for an extended period. So LowePro moved the handle to the outside of the pack when you're wearing it. This also avoids loose straps dragging on the ground when you're using it as a rolling pack. It looks odd at first but it works.
A problem with many rolling cases and packs is that they don't roll very well. This one does. It uses roller blade wheels for smooth rolling, and those wheels are widely spaced to make it stable on uneven ground and when going up and down steps. Speaking of steps, wide bumpers are built in to protect the outside of the pack for when you're wheeling up and down steps and escalators. These bumpers extend around, and completely enclose the bottom corners of the bag - providing protection in exactly the place where rolling bags get the most abrasion damage.
When it comes time to lift the pack up onto an x-ray machine, into an overhead compartment, or into the rental car, the Road Runner has three wide grippable handles that make it easy to grab and maneuver the pack from almost any angle. The side and top handle are heavily padded. The bottom handle is made from tough plastic and doubles as a support when the bag is sitting upright. The width of the handle means the bag gets plenty of support and doesn't tend to topple and tip the way the many rolling bags are prone to do.
The rigid handle moves up and down smoothly and also features a wide handle that is easy on the hand. All those well designed handles are a good thing too. This bag swallows a ton of gear and gets damned heavy when it's fully loaded. Which leads to one problem I experienced with this bag. The harness and the rolling frame on opposite sides of the bag dictate that there be a solid connection between the front and back of the pack to prevent the weight of the contents from ripping the main zipper apart. LowePro solves this problem by using three hefty, quick release, buckles to tie the two side positively together. The problem is that when the tripod is mounted in place on the side of the pack it sits over top of one of the buckles, making it almost impossible to get to the buckle unless you remove the tripod. A major hassle if you do a lot of handheld shooting (as I do). I got around it by removing the center tripod bungee (there are three) which gave me enough wiggle room to squeeze a hand between the tripod and the bag - but it was still a hassle. LowePro can fix this problem by moving the buckle and inch or so closer to the harness. For those already owning the bag I don't know what a long term fix would be.
When you're ready to open the bag, a wide prop folds out from underneath. The flap folds open and is supported by two straps that prevent it from flopping out. This allows you easy access to all of the bags internal compartments.
The main compartment is removable, allowing you to use the bag as a general travel bag rather than a camera bag. Another possibility is to purchase more than one insert from LowePro. This is a real advantage for photographers who shoot more than one format since they can pre-pack an insert for each format, and simply swap them into the pack as needed. The insert itself is well padded and almost infinitely configurable. It easily accepts long professional lenses and will swallow 2 bodies with a long telephoto and a medium zoom attached (see photo). Separate hook and loop straps are included to hold those long lenses snuggly in place.
The flap has two large, see through, zippered pockets to swallow odds and ends. There are also two 14 inch long mesh pockets (one on each side), and two zippered top pockets, snugged between the padded insert and the outside of the bag. Just remember that there is no padding for items inserted into these pockets. The insert itself is held firmly in place with two wide hook and loop strips.
The harness is well designed, and a true backpack harness. It has a wide range of adjustability that should suit most body types. Like any good backpack it allows you to carry the majority of the load on your hips, and gives you the ability to fine tune the shoulder straps to adjust how the load rides on your back via the load adjusting straps and the sternum strap. The lumbar pad is generous, and with the rolling hardware on the opposite side of the pack there are no hard edges to dig in to you.
Like any other backpack it can be a bit of a bear to get it on and off when fully loaded. But once you've got the straps set up the way you want, you can hike long distances with this pack without the need to invite your chiropractor along on the trip. The straps and the back pad are both made from DryFlo, a two layer fabric that helps keep moisture and sweat away from your body. When not in use the straps are covered by a zippered flap that keeps them out of harms way.
That was actually one of my reservations about this bag. With the straps zippered under their flap the bag is pretty thick through the middle, and I knew from experience that it wouldn't fit into the overhead compartment of smaller commuter jets. It turns out that the waist belt and shoulder straps are both easily removed and reattached which means that the pack should fit in almost any commercial airline overhead compartment.
So far I've largely ignored the smaller daypack. As mentioned above it can either be attached to the backpack via D ring attachments and snap hooks or it can be worn separately. When attaching the daypack to the backpack, the daypack's shoulder straps are tucked into a pocket to keep them out of the way. This little pack is actually a nice piece of work itself. The lightly padded shoulder straps include an adjustable sternum strap. It has a large zippered main compartment, and two smaller zippered compartments in the flap. The larger of those contains a zippered clear pocket, and several smaller pockets. The smaller outer compartment is undivided. It features the same materials as it's big brother and wide storm flaps cover the zippers. This is actually a nice little pack in and of itself.
So what are the downsides? For one thing you sacrifice a good bit of room to the handle and wheels and they add some weight to the total package. That's inherent in any rolling bag. LowePro has done an excellent job of minimizing the compromises that so many of these dual purpose bags have. By thinking of it as a system, they have made a much more useful product. I thought it was great hiking out in the woods, less so hiking around an urban environment that had me going into the bag quite a bit. And as one who suffers from a bad back I was pleasantly surprised at how well it was able to distribute the weight to my hips - and keep me from reaching for the pain killers.
So is this bag for everyone? Absolutely not. But as I said at the top, if you are a traveling photographer or a photographer who travels a lot this bag may well solve a lot of problems for you.
Expect street prices to be around $425.
This bag does an amazing number of things right
The Road Runner AW is actually two bags - a rolling backpack and a smaller daypack
By thinking of it as a system they have made a more useful product
text and photography copyright © 2001 Vivid Light Publishing