The Shimoda Designs Explore v2 series is currently available at a discounted price via their Kickstarter campaign. The project was fully funded in just a few hours and bags will be shipping in September. I have been using a pair of the new bags for the last couple of months, so today I will give you my honest thoughts.
In this review, I will walk you through all the features of these exciting new landscape and travel photography bags. We will also take a look at how the Explore v2 series compares to the Action X series so that you can make a well-informed purchasing decision.
Table of Contents
- Explore v1 vs. v2 – What Has Changed?
- Explore v2 Specifications
- Explore v2 Sizing
- Design and Features
- Shimoda Core Units
- Recommended Shimoda Accessories for Explore v2
- Explore or Action X?
- Where to Buy (Discount)
Explore v1 vs. v2 – What Has Changed?
The original Explore backpack was Shimoda Designs’ first product. Back then it was designed as a do-it-all outdoor camera bag whose broad size range (30L, 40L and 60L) would suit a wide variety of photographic pursuits, from travel and landscape to action and adventure sports photographers.
With the later introduction of the Action X backpack lineup, a bag that targets those action and adventure photographers more specifically, there was now some significant crossover between the Shimoda Designs Explore and Action X lineups. For the Explore v2 series, a clear target from Shimoda was to make that line between these two Shimoda backpack products much clearer. The new Shimoda Explore v2 backpacks have been redesigned to accommodate the needs of travel and landscape photographers, with the introduction of features specific to the needs of those markets.
Explore v2 Improvements
- New travel-friendly sizes (25L, 30L, 35L).
- Luggage handle pass-through.
- Filter pocket.
- Additional handles around the bag for repositioning on the ground.
- Second front zippered pocket added.
- 12 strap attachment points for accessory straps.
- Stowable side pockets for tripod and water bottle.
- Dual access internal document pocket.
- Aired-out mesh harness.
- Aired-out mesh back panel.
- Lockable YKK zippers.
- Hidden passport pocket.
These individual features will all be detailed and discussed as we go through the review. What I can say right away, though, is that the new features are all welcome additions. There isn’t a single new feature that feels unnecessary or a step backwards from the original camera bag. This is good news. The Explore v2 isn’t just a new bag for the sake of having a new product launch. This is a well thought out update that has clearly taken user feedback and transferred it to an updated design.
Shimoda Designs Explore v2 Specifications
Pricing (Shell Only)
- Explore 25 – $300 (save $113 on Kickstarter)
- Explore 30 – $310 (Save up to $125 on Kickstarter)
- Explore 35 – $320 (Save up to $130 on Kickstarter)
Dimensions and Weight
Explore v2 25L
|Width (int)||10.2in / 26cm|
|Width (ext)||10.6in / 27cm|
|Height (int)||17.9in / 45.5cm|
|Height (ext)||18.3in / 46.5cm|
|Depth (int)||6.2in / 16cm|
|Depth (ext)||6.6in / 17cm|
|Weight (shell only)||3.5lbs / 1.57kg|
Explore v2 30L
|Width (int)||11.2in / 28.5cm|
|Width (ext)||11.6in / 29.5cm|
|Height (int)||19.8in / 50.5cm|
|Height (ext)||20.3in / 51.5cm|
|Depth (int)||6.2in / 16cm|
|Depth (ext)||6.6in / 17cm|
|Weight (shell only)||3.6lbs / 1.65kg|
Explore v2 35L
|Width (int)||11.2in / 28.5cm|
|Width (ext)||11.6in / 29.5cm|
|Height (int)||20.8in / 53cm|
|Height (ext)||21.2in / 54cm|
|Depth (int)||7.4in / 19cm|
|Depth (ext)||7.8in / 20cm|
|Weight (shell only)||4.4lbs / 2kg|
Explore v2 Sizing
The original Shimoda Designs Explore backpack series was available in three versions with different volumes: Explore 30, Explore 40 and Explore 60. Those bags were launched before the Action X series came to market. Now that the Shimoda backpack lineup includes the Action X in 30L, 50L and 70L sizes, Shimoda Designs has decided to adjust the sizing of the Explore backpacks to re-position them. The Explore v2 backpacks are now available in three sizes: Explore 25, Explore 30 and Explore 35.
Later on in the review, I will discuss the differences between the Shimoda Designs Explore and Action X series, but I think this change in sizing is a good idea. There is now less crossover between the two product lineups and this should lead to less customer confusion about which bag is right for them.
Compared to most photo backpacks that cross my desk, I wouldn’t class any of these bags as huge. There are plenty of outdoor photography backpacks out there in the 40-50L range, such as the MindShift Backlight Elite (45L), the F-Stop Ajna (40L), F-Stop Tilopa (50L), Lowepro Pro Trekker 550 (40L).
What’s nice about these new Explore sizes is that there are very few truly top-end photo packs available in these smaller sizes. With most camera bag manufacturers, when you step down to the smaller sizes, you are also stepping down to a lower product tier with a lower price point. The Gura Gear Kiboko backpacks in the 16L and 22L sizes jump out at me as exceptions to that rule, but in general, super high quality smaller packs are harder to come by.
Options for Female Photographers
Not only will the size of the Explore v2 backpacks please people who want that quality in a lighter, more streamlined pack, it’ll also please female photographers who often struggle to find correctly fitting packs for smaller frames. On top of that, the packs are available with one of three different women’s specific shoulders straps. These contoured straps use a twin sternum strap design to alleviate awkward pressure points around the chest. I can’t think of any other camera bag manufacturer offering this feature, so right out of the gate, it makes them an easy recommendation for female photographers.
Airline Travel with Explore Backpacks
Shimoda’s Take on Explore Backpack Sizing
- E25 – Sized for Global Carry–On & will fit under an airplane seat
- E30 – Sized for EU Carry–On & fits under some airplane seats
- E35 – Sized for US Carry–On and Premium Seating options
I think Shimoda are playing it too safe with these carry-on definitions. Of course, you should always check allowable baggage dimensions with your airline carrier before embarking on a trip, but I have flown countless trips with bags that are larger than any of these Explore backpacks.
The Explore 25 is a very small camera bag, so I don’t want people to come away from this review, or any of their research into the Explore backpack series, thinking this would be the only one that they could take on an international flight. Heck, I’ve flown internationally with the Action X 70, and that’s near 3x the size of the Explore 25.
Just as an example, I checked Air Canada’s current carry-on size regulations for international flights: 21in X 9in X 15.5in. This means the largest Explore 35 backpack easily falls within the allowable dimensions for that international flight. In fact, the allowable “personal item” dimensions are 13in X 6in X 17in which means you could nearly take the E25 as your second item on the plane! If you removed the shoulder straps and carried it by the side handle, I think that’s well within the realms of possibility.
So, please treat Shimoda’s air travel recommendations for the Explore series as one with a significant safety net. I would not say that any of the new Explore v2 backpacks are large bags and personally would not hesitate to take any of them on any airline. The clean, no-fuss external design of these bags also works in their favour in this regard and should help them fly under the radar.
Design and Features
The harness is made from an aerated mesh that is extremely comfortable. It’s adjustable in all the right places, and crucially features a torso length adjustment in three steps: S, M, L. Torso adjustment is becoming more common on high-end photo packs these days, but Shimoda Designs were definitely at the forefront of this concept went the original Explore packs were launched.
It’s worth noting that at first glance, the torso adjustment feature might look like a construction weak point. Having all of the bag’s weight passing through those small bar tacks is not intuitive. However, I can say with confidence that these stitching points are incredibly strong. The same design is used on my Action X70 backpack, and I have regularly loaded that bag with 60-70lbs of gear and had no issues in years of use.
After putting some miles under my belt with the Explore v2 packs, I’m confident in saying that these are the most comfortable outdoor camera bags I have ever used in this 25L-35L size bracket. The severe contouring of the shoulder straps wraps around my torso in just the right way, and the top attachment point on the torso length adjust mechanism provides some lateral expansion that adds comfort to my very broad shoulders.
Aside from the general comfort of the harness on these, I’m also a big fan of the additional functionality provided by the pockets. Living as I do in bear country, where a grizzly can be just around the corner, bear spray is a constant companion. The right-hand expandable pocket on the harness is perfect for this! The left-hand pocket is a bit of a tight squeeze with a “Plus” iPhone, but it’s still doable if you don’t have it in a bulk case. Alternatively, this is a great place to keep your In-Reach or other personal location device.
Your camera gear can be accessed through a zippered back panel or a zippered side panel. Personally, I’m a big fan of back panel access. For any outdoor photography this is preferable to a bag with front access as it keeps the back of the pack clean when you lay the bag down in the dirt, and therefore does not transfer that dirt to you when you shoulder the pack.
I’m personally not a user of side access in camera bags. I find that it generally requires you to organize your internal camera unit in a less than efficient way just to make sure the camera can be retrieved through the side door. Of course, its use is also limited by the fact that you can usually only retrieve the camera with whatever lens is attached to it at the time. If you have four lenses in your bag, there is a 1-in-4 chance that you have the right lens on. If you don’t, you have to drop the pack and open the back panel anyway. Or you get lazy and simply use the lens you have side access to, despite it not being quite the right one for the job.
I have experimented with it many times and always returned to simply opening the back panel. Your mileage may vary. I assume there must be a lot of people who do like this feature as it keeps showing up on backpacks that I’m reviewing. Probably the best-use scenario is that you are using the Explore 25 with its small Core Unit, and only carrying a camera with a single general-purpose lens such as a 24-70 or 24-105.
For Explore v2, a new lower front pocket was added to the bags. The profile of the pocket is quite flat, and for travel, would lend itself well to guides such as Lonely Planet books. If you are travelling in a place where pickpockets are a concern, the contents of this pocket would be the most vulnerable as it has a single zipper and therefore can’t be locked. With my testing of these packs taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic, I mostly ended up designating this pocket as a clean space to keep my face masks.
I like the addition of this pocket. More organization is always welcome when travelling, as long as it doesn’t make the bag too complicated and fussy. This pocket has been thoughtfully added in such a way, and location, that it doesn’t alter the bulk or lines of the bag. If you don’t use the pocket, you’ll forget it’s even there.
Above this there’s a much larger front pocket that is internally divided by a lightweight nylon panel. Useful if you need to separate damp clothing from other gear. At the top of this pocket there are two more zippered window pockets for small items such as batteries, USB cables, tripod/camera tools and lens cloths.
The main top zipper gives you access to a gear storage compartment that sits above the Core Unit. The compartment itself is made from lightweight nylon, and the amount of storage space you have up here depends on the size of the Core Unit you have chosen to use for your camera gear. At full volume, this section is large enough to store several extra layers of clothing, gloves, food for a day, binoculars and more. It’s a considerable space.
Inside this top section, there is two mesh zippered pocket for even more organization. One of these pockets is lightly padded and contains a quick-release key clip that can also be used to secure a memory card wallet. If you decide one day that you want to use your bag for something completely different, you can remove this top section of the bag entirely, creating a regular backpack that uses the complete internal volume.
Another addition for the Explore v2 is a semi-hidden document pocket. This pocket is actually sewn into the rear of the top section. To access it you either have to open a secondary zipper on top of the bag, or you can get to it through the back panel of the bag. This pocket has zippers at the top and the bottom to suit both methods of access. In my testing, I found this pocket to be a good place for items you do not regularly need. The contents are not as quick to get to as things stored in the other two mesh pockets, so it would be a good place to store travel documents that are only needed at the beginning or end of your trip.
There are zippered openings on both sides of the bag. One of these gives you access to the camera compartment, and within that door flap, there is a secret padded pocket that is secured with hook and loop. If you like to use the side access for camera gear, you might want to slot the Core Unit side flap into this pocket so that it opens with the bag’s side flap. If like me you don’t use the side access for camera gear, this provides a conveniently hidden pocket where you could store cash and passports while travelling.
On the opposite side of the bag, a similar-looking side zipper gets you access to a pair of smaller zippered filter pockets. You’re also seeing the rear of the pocket that stores the water bottle/tripod holder, and there is room in that pocket to store additional smaller items if the ten other pockets aren’t already enough for you!
The front pocket of the bag has a connection for hanging a water bladder, and the hose can be routed through the pack to the shoulder strap. The internal elasticated divider in the front gives your gear some protection should you suffer a total water bladder failure. Alternatively, you can use one of the two hidden side pockets to carry a 1L Nalgene bottle, or similar. A third possibility, if you don’t need a large volume of water, is to use the expandable pocket on the harness to carry a small soft-sided bottle, of the type often used by adventure racers and long-distance runners.
You can use the accessory straps to attach a tripod to the front of the pack, but this impedes entry to the front pockets. A better solution is to use the hidden tripod/water bottle cups that are tucked away on the sides of the bag. Many photo packs have a side pocket for this purpose, but none other than Shimoda backpacks have the ability to completely tuck it away when not in use. This is a useful feature for travel, as it gives the bag a nice clean line and makes it look a lot smaller.
All three sizes of the Explore backpacks feature a thickly padded laptop sleeve on the inside of the back panel. The Explore 25 can carry up to a 13″ laptop, while the Explore 30 and Explore 35 can carry up to a 16″ laptop. Having the laptop sleeve in this location gives it a lot of protection from theft and bumps. You can easily pull it upwards from the bag by partially unzipping the top part of the back panel when you have limited space, such as on an airplane.
The Explore backpacks are made from highly weather-resistant material and feature YKK AquaGuard zippers all around. If you get caught in a brief shower, this isn’t going to present you with any problems. Eventually, some water would get into the bag, but it would take a considerable downpour and prolonged exposure.
Shimoda Designs does offer a rain cover for the bags. For those who purchase during the Kickstarter campaign, the cover is included. If you purchase the bag after the campaign from regular retail channels, the rain cover will be an additional $7.95. A very fair price and much less than camera bag manufacturers usually charge for options rain covers.
Whether this is worth it to you likely depends on where you live or where you plan to shoot with the bag. On most days, unless rain was specifically forecast, I’d probably risk it and not take a cover with me to save some room and weight in the bag. If I was travelling to Asia in monsoon season, yes, I’m definitely taking a rain cover. For less than $10, it’s probably worth having the cover in your gear closet just in case. These bags are designed for travel after all, so who knows where you will take them!
Shimoda Core Unit Choices
Compatible Core Units
- Explore 25 – Small Mirrorless
- Explore 30 – Small Mirrorless / Medium Mirrorless / Large Mirrorless
- Explore 35 – Small Mirrorless / Medium Mirrorless / Large Mirrorless / Small DSLR / Medium DSLR / Large DSLR
Core Units are Shimoda’s version of camera inserts. Unlike most other camera inserts, these have an internal frame that gives them a lot of structure and allows the walls to be a lot thinner for more efficient use of the bag’s internal space. They are available in multiple sizes (S, M, L, XL) and three different depths (DV, DSLR and Mirrorless). The deepest Core Units, the DV lineup, will not fit in the Explore backpack, so we’re going to skip over those and concentrate on the Mirrorless and DSLR Core Units in this review.
The naming of the depths is a little confusing. The Mirrorless Core Units are the shallowest, but they are perfectly capable of fitting a regular DSLR like a Canon 5D Mark IV despite their name. You only need to use a DSLR Core Unit if you want to use a DSLR or a mirrorless camera with a battery grip.
- Mirrorless Core Units – Mirrorless cameras or DSLRs
- DSLR Core Units – Gripped mirrorless cameras, gripped DSLRs or pro-sized DSLRs/Mirrorless (Canon R3 etc)
- DV Core Units – These do not fit in the Explore backpacks
Explore 25 Core Unit
The Explore 25 is the smallest Shimoda Designs backpack. For this bag, they had to introduce a brand new Core Unit called the Small Mirrorless Core Unit. When this Core Unit is used with the E25 backpack it is used vertically. However, if you rotate it horizontally, it is the same width as all of Shimoda’s larger Core Units, and therefore fits in the bottom of the Explore 30 and Explore 35.
For those that only want to carry a small amount of camera gear, and leave maximum room for adventure gear, the Small Mirrorless Core Unit is perfect. Even though it is the smallest in the lineup, there is still room for a 70-200 f/2.8, a 24-70 mounted to a body and one additional smaller prime lens + accessories.
Explore 30 Core Units
The Explore 30 backpack shares the same low profile as the Explore 25. This means that you can only use the Mirrorless Core Units in the bag. As well as the aforementioned Small Mirrorless, you can also use the Medium Mirrorless and a new Large Mirrorless Core Unit that was introduced with the Explore v2 bags.
If you choose the Large Mirrorless Core Unit, it will use up the majority of the bag’s internal space. Choosing either the Small or Medium Mirrorless Core Unit will allow you to make better use of the zippered organization pockets in the top half of the bag. If you can squeeze your camera gear into the Small or Medium Unit, the bag works a little better. In other words, don’t buy a Core Unit that is unnecessarily large for the gear you plan to use. Run the smallest Unit you can for best results.
Explore 35 Core Units
For the E35 you can use any of the Mirrorless Core Units or any of the slightly deeper DSLR Core Units. If you shoot with a mirrorless camera without a battery grip and therefore don’t need the extra depth of the DSLR Core Units, you could use the slimmer Mirrorless Core Unit in this bag.
I find this to be useful when you have a lot of gear to store in the front pocket of your bag. That front pocket will expand into the main part of the bag and use up the extra space you have vacated by using the slimmer Core Unit. However, if you use a Mirrorless Core Unit in this bag and do not have a lot else in the bag, you will find the Core Unit has a lot of room to move around. You’ll also need to use the blue cover over the Core Unit to stop things from falling out as it moves around. Of course, this doesn’t happen if you use one of the DSLR Core Units that take up the full depth of the bag.
In my time testing the Explore 35, I found the real sweet spot to be the Medium DSLR Core Unit. This gave me a lot of room for camera gear, but also allowed the top half of the bag to be put to full use. When a large Core Unit (Mirrorless or DSLR) is used in the bag, it takes up the majority of the internal volume, and it’s hard to put all the pockets in the top section of the bag to good use. I think the Explore 35 with the Mirrorless DSLR Core Unit will be a top-selling combo for this camera bag.
Sony 200-600mm – Which Core Unit?
People asked. I answered.
The Sony 200-600mm will fit in either the Large Mirrorless or Large DSLR core unit. The video shows the slight differences.
Recommended Accessories for Shimoda Bags
Shimoda has a great range of accessories to suit the Explore backpack lineup.
Shimoda Accessory Straps
If you buy the Explore v2 during the Kickstarter campaign, a pair of accessory straps will be included with your bag. If you buy them later, they cost $9.95. These straps can be used in various places around the bag, but are most useful when you want to strap something large to the front of the bag.
Shimoda Top Loader
The Top Loader ($64.95) is Shimoda’s camera holster. It is designed to work as a chest harness on any of the Shimoda bags, or you can mount it on the waist belt of the bag. It also includes a shoulder strap for when you want to ditch the pack. Check out our review of the Shimoda Top Loade (includes video) for more information.
Shimoda Accessory Pouch
The Accessory Pouch ($22.95) is a useful little organizer that I use to store my camera batteries. The zippered compartment allows me to separate my batteries throughout my shoot, storing fresh batteries upfront, and moving depleted batteries into the zippered compartment. I use a second one to store my on-the-go camera/tripod toolkit. Check out our review of the Shimoda Accessory Pouch for more information.
Shimoda Panel Wraps
The Panel Wraps (starting at $24.95) are a great way to organize sets of accessories. They are available in three different sizes. Check out our review of the Shimoda Panel Wraps for more information.
Explore or Action X?
Although both are rugged outdoor camera bags, the Explore and Action X bags serve different purposes. The Explore backpacks are designed for landscape photographers and travel photographers. They have features that are specifically designed for that market such as lockable zippers, a luggage handle pass-through, a hidden passport pocket and a built-in filter pocket.
The sizing of the Explore backpacks is also a better fit for the type of gear that is most often carried by travel and landscape photographers. Even the smallest Explore 25 backpack will still hold a 70-200 (or 100-400), plus a 24-70 on a body and another small zoom or prime. For lightweight landscape missions or low-profile world travel missions, this is often all you need.
Those needing a little more room can make the incremental steps up to Explore 30 or Explore 35, largely depending on how much non-photographic gear you want to carry in your bag alongside your camera. As I mentioned before, I would not hesitate to fly internationally with any of the Explore bags. Even the largest Explore 35 comes in under the carry-on size limits for my most-used airlines, and the Explore 25 even fits under the seat in front of you, which can be a handy thing when you fly in the tiny puddle jumpers in more remote locations.
The Action X backpacks are purpose-designed for action and adventure sports photographers, and are also deep enough and tall enough for wildlife photographers to carry a 400mm f/2.8 or a 600mm f/4. They come with a hemet holder, TPU reinforced straps to hold skis or a snowboard, and a roll-top design that offers an extra 7 litres of volume as you add and remove layers or gear throughout your day.
An often overlooked difference is the back panel design of these two bags. The Explore bags have an aerated mesh that is very breathable. The problem is that in winter environments, snow can get trapped in the mesh and eventually melt onto your back when you put the pack on. The Action X bags have a moulded EVA back panel. While less breathable, snow and mud can simply be brushed right off it before shouldering the pack.
The crossover point for these two series is the 30-litre versions, and I’m sure a few people will be trying to choose between Explore 30 and the Action X30. If you are going to use the pack while skiing or snowboarding, the choice is clear: Get the Action X30. Outside of that, it will really come down to how confident you are that your gear will fit into a 30L volume. If you think there might be days when that will be a tight squeeze, the Action X30 will give you an extra 7 litres with the roll-top.
The Shimoda Designs Explore v2 backpack is an excellent update to an already great product. There was once some confusing crossover between the Explore series and the Action X series. This v2 update has sought to remedy that by repositioning the Explore backpacks to be more focused on travel and landscape photography. The new smaller sizes and the travel and landscape specific features do this perfectly.
Now the delineation is clear. Choose the Explore backpacks for extensive travel photography and landscape photography. Choose the Action X backpacks for gear-heavy action and adventure sports photography, and wildlife photography with super-telephoto prime lenses.
In the field, for bags in the 25L-35L range, these are the most comfortable photography backpacks I have ever tested. The heavily contoured and aerated shoulder straps provide all-day comfort, while the adjustable torso length and optional women’s shoulder straps ensure anyone can get a good fit with all of the Explore bag sizes.
If you’re looking for a new camera bag for extensive travel and landscape photography, the Explore bags should definitely be on your list, probably right at the top. The only potential negative for some people is going to be the price (unless you are getting the huge Kickstarter discount). At $300 to $330 for the shell and an additional $60 to $80 for compatible Core Units, these bags are positioned right at the top of the outdoor camera bag market. The superb build quality and a lengthy list of features do a great job of justifying the price, but I’m sure it’ll make a few people pause for thought. My 2 cents? You won’t be disappointed if you pull the trigger.
Where to Buy (+ Get a Discount)
The Explore v2 series is currently available for a significant discount (roughly 1/3rd off ) via their Kickstarter campaign. Given Shimoda’s excellent track record with previous campaigns, I have no doubt this will be funded. Don’t miss your chance to save some money on a great bag!