Review: Vanguard Alta Sky 510 Backpack

 

The Vanguard Alta Sky 510 Backpack won a Red Dot design award

For the last many years I’ve been a Tamrac / Lowepro user and I spent years in a local camera store using, training on and selling those brands and several others. This backpack was my first real world foray into the Vanguard’s products and I was eager to see how it would compare to the many types of bags that I’ve been through already. And, as it won a Red Dot design award this year, I was eager to give it a go.

After pulling the Alta Sky from its box, I was first blown away by the sheer girth of this bag and then impressed by the quality feel and build of it. Size wise and access wise, this is a bag for someone who has been looking at the Tenba Shootout 32L or Peak Design Everyday Backpack 30L or a backpack in the 24-32 liter range. From its pro level hiking style strap construction to its drone pouch on the front, any casual mirrorless user or anyone with a few kit lenses and normal camera body need not read farther: this bag was meant for big camera users. This bag is also not meant for anyone who is looking for an airline carry-on bag. Empty, the Alta Sky weighs almost 7 pounds, measures just outside of FAA dimensions and its lack of a removable waist belt mean that you’re going to look like a crazy person trying to get this beast into an overhead bin.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Quite a lot of room – plenty of movable dividers that allow for full redesign of the entire interior space allowing for a 1, 2 or 3 compartment design
  • Can easily hold a 15in laptop
  • 1-2 Drones carried internally or externally
  • Hiking strap system with shoulder adjustments and waist belt
  • Quality look and feel – exterior material rejects rain and sand easily
  • Well priced for bags in the same range and category
  • Side door access can handle 1Dx MKII / D5 sized cameras with 70-200 style lenses attached
  • Solid, heavy duty, brightly colored interior and exterior padding that rejects heavy impacts with ease

Cons

  • The unit I was given was missing the double stitched reinforcement sewing on the left lower strap attachment point.
  • Heavy – not meant for overhead airplane bins – without gear it weighs almost 7lbs – in contrast the Peak Design 30L is only 3.5lbs – it’s a very wide and bulky backpack
  • Lack of small pockets and storage areas – not enough compartments to safely put spare AA batteries, plates, filters etc without them floating around or pressed against sides of the bag
  • Shoulder strap width and padding felt inadequate for full gear loadout weight – seemed to cut into my shoulders after a few minutes of wear – much reduced when not fully loaded
  • Waist belt cannot be removed
  • Zippers for the laptop and backdoor flaps are hard to access – zippers do not have rain flaps over them
  • Bulky and heavy – oh wait, I already mentioned that

Ergonomics

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The bag is in the general style of a hiking backpack. At the top there is a zippered top access door with a moveable velcro floor inside. It allows for speedlight/cable/small item storage or if the floor is removed, almost any camera with lenses up to 150-600 style length could be top loaded into it.

The front of the bag is a conundrum but If you own a drone though, its perfect. A phantom style drone with propellers and camera removed can easily be clipped in front of the bag quite securely. There is a pocket behind the large main flap that could hold the propellers. In my use of the bag, I used the flap to hold a massive extension cord, was able to strap in a 26in umbrella once and also used it to hold boxes of artifact uprising prints. There is no access to the main compartment from the front, but this is not a necessity. Adding that access would’ve reduced the rigidity of the bag which is one of it’s more admirable features.

Below the drone flap on the front, there’s a tiered and zippered bottom access door. This part of the bag is where the award for design goes to. It unzips and the entire top half of the bag can lay flat for unobstructed access to the padded and sectioned interior. There is ample room for lenses and straps and batteries here. One configuration allowed me to have an 85mm, 28mm, a zoom lens, sling strap, 8 DSLR batteries, spare triggers and tripod plates all just within the bottom compartment. With a rubberized bottom and thick padding, I really haven’t worried about my lenses getting damaged in there. My only concern is that there is one thin zipper instead of a dual zipper to close it up. Combined with two front clips, the ease of access drops when you have one free hand and the zipper is on the other side of the bag. And too many times, one of the front clips would get hung up in the small teeth of the zipper.

copyright 2017, joshua conti

On the right side of the bag is the side access door. It’s heavy duty zipper and wide mouth allow for simple egress and ingress. There are SD card pouches inside the door and a large zippered access on the outside where I’ve put business cards and even my iPhone SE has fit.

On the other side is a large, stretch pouch with a thick, branded loop above it. It’s perfect for my Westcott Ice Light and I also found my 6ft light stand fit well enough for carry. Water bottles, speedlights, battery packs, etc are all candidates for this pouch and the band really helps with locking down taller items.

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The rear of the bag is where most of the action happens. You have a hiking strap system with fully adjustable, padded straps with vented padding. The waist belt is more than adequate and unless your trekking a mile or more with this bag, seems to get in the way enough to have to clip it together closed and drop the bag down lower to keep the strap from pressing into the small of your back. Smaller framed bodies like mine (5/10 160lbs) will feel the immensity of this bag when youre fully strapped into it with all straps on. It’s not uncomfortable but it will remind you it’s there a lot. The straps are ergonomic enough but they did start to bite into my shoulders after a half hour of wear at full loadout. While the straps fold back against the bag, they can get in the way of getting to your gear through the fold down access door in the back. The vented padding on the back of the backpack is comfortable but almost overstated. The door also contains the laptop storage pouch and has a very durable, double zipper clearly marked by yellow zipper tags. I wish the entire bag had this zipper system, its easy to open and find, even in low light conditions. Inside is the fully customizable interior with more of the same, thick, durable padding found in the rest of the bag. From here, you can see that the entire interior can be removed to create one massive compartment or reconfigure the bag in any way you could see fit.

Build Quality

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Big camera users – this bag was meant for you. There is a ton of surprisingly well designed space inside this bag. My first time using it was for a day long wedding video gig. Just in the main compartment area alone I fit a Manfrotto LYKOS LED light with the Sony battery and ballhead mount attached, along with a Canon 50D with Tamron 35mm 1.8 (my emergency still camera), Nikon 35-70mm 2.8, Nikon D7200 with 16-55 2.8 attached and EN-EL15 battery charger. That still left (what I call) the lens locker in the bottom half of the bag where I had a 50mm 1.8, Tamron 85mm 1.8, Nikon 28mm 2,8, 5 backup batteries, Black Rapid Crosshot strap, second battery charger and an Eneloop charger. In addition, I had my speedlight with triggers attached, box of AA batteries, various wires and microphones as well as other random things all packed into the top area of the bag. Had I wanted to, I would have been able to fit my D7100 into the main compartment as well.

Once I had settled into using this bag, it took some work to get it setup how I wanted. Out of the box, a D7100 with Tamron 85mm 1.8, strap and trigger fit into the side door with enough room left to put a whole other camera body. A D810 with 24-70mm and hood on felt more at home in the bag. The bag and moveable padding are all designed with heavy gear in mind and after a few major drops and even a hard brake in my car with the bag flying forward into the back of my seat, nothing happened to anything inside of the bag at all.

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Of note, this bag won me over for two reasons: the top compartment and the bottom dropout compartment. The top compartment easily holds two full sized speedlights with triggers and studs attached and is very easy to access. Solo shooters with portable light setups will love this. The bottom compartment can handle up to six lenses and folds out away from the bag to make lens changes quite easy and painless. Almost any prime lens will fit in this area and even shorter zooms with hoods flipped backwards can fit comfortably.

According to manufacturer pics, the Alta Vista can hold a drone inside the main area or on the outer drone sling pouch on the front. I wasn’t able to get a drone to test this with in time for review submission but I can confirm that objects within the dimensions of a Phantom 4 can comfortably fit in the Alta Vista. The potential for carrying two full Phantom 4 drone rigs in this bag is there for sure.

Ease of Use

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In using this for laptop carry I found my 2015 13in Apple MacBook Air postively drowned in the laptop compartment but my 2017 15in Dell Latitude fit like a glove. My only major concern is that it does place your laptop square against your back with only flex padding between your (sweaty heavying body) and your precious tech. Bags like the Tenba 32L with their backpack frame have inspired more of my confidence in backpacking a laptop around than this bag has.

Conclusions

My main takeaway: this backpack deserves its own ” Gear Locker” category. It’s become my gear locker that can handle the elements, reliably protect my equipment and allow for easily gear changes. Make no mistake, this is not a flyer’s bag nor is it for someone with one camera and a lens. But if you have a large loadout with multiple cameras, fly drones or need to carry oddly proportioned equipment on a day to day basis, this bag needs to be at the top of your list. Vanguard has made quite good first impression on me.