I am on what feels like an endless hunt for a backpack, or even set of backpacks, that I actually like to use. I’m looking for comfort, build quality, and maybe a tinge of style. Finding this bag is harder than it sounds, but Shimoda’s new Urban Explore comes the closest yet.
As the primary author of PetaPixel‘s best photography backpack guide, I test a lot of bags and backpacks. I’ve got more than I know what to do with, but even with this glut of options, I often find myself wanting. I used the Peak Design Everyday Backpack for years — at the expense of my spine — because nothing else felt like it made a strong enough argument to take its place. If it was more comfortable, it had lesser build quality. Maybe it added excellent customization but also had way too many straps that would dangle and catch on seats when I boarded an airplane. If it featured better organization, it did so at the cost of actual usable space.
Last year, I finally ditched the Peak Design backpack and swapped over to the Gura Gear Kiboko City Commuter. It is a better backpack in many ways, but after a year of toting it around the country, I’m just not in love.
It’s very good, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t have shoulder adjustment options, the internals are fixed (no removable cube so it’s basically only ever a camera bag), the top roll feels out of place on a bag like this, and when weighed down it just didn’t feel comfortable to wear for long periods. It was still the best backpack for everyday use and light travel that I’ve tested, but there was room for improvement. And so, the hunt that I thought had finally concluded continued once again.
Enter the Shimoda Urban Explore
A few weeks ago, I noticed that Shimoda — my perennial favorite when it comes to adventure-style backpacks — had expanded beyond its bread-and-butter style and announced the Urban Explore. Taking design inspiration from its strap-heavy adventure bags, the Urban Explore was a more pared-down experience designed for everyday use. Given that Shimoda makes what I argue are the best adventure packs available, I was keen to see if its foray into everyday carry was even remotely as successful.
I tested the Shimoda Urban Explore 25L (the middle size option between 20L and 30L) in the Anthracite color (a fancy name for black). I’ve used it over the past week and a half and am so far very much enjoying the experience.
Shimoda Urban Explore: External Design
The Urban Explore very much has the heart and soul of Shimoda’s travel and adventure bags, namely the Explore v2. But recognizing there is a difference between a bag that’s great for travel and one that’s ideal for a day in the city, Shimoda’s Urban Explore trims the fat around the edges without compromising build quality.
The exterior of the bag is made from Cordura’s re/cor yarn, which makes it just about as performant as Shimoda’s mountain gear without looking like it belongs in an extreme environment. That was the stated goal, anyway, and I think Shimoda delivered. It repels water and dust about as well as Gura Gear’s Kiboko bag but feels a lot nicer. The Kiboko has a sort of windbreaker material to it that, to me, doesn’t feel particularly good to touch. The Peak Design backpack, on the other hand, has a fabric-like feel that I have always liked and Shimoda’s Urban Explore is closer to that, although with a finer texture that repels water and dust better.
I should note that the Urban Explore is never described as waterproof, and in testing I confirmed that, but while water could seep in under heavy deluge or if it’s sitting in a puddle, it isn’t as easily absorbed as it is with either the Kiboko or the Everyday Backpack.
In order to keep a clean look, the Urban Explore uses side pockets to hold a tripod or water bottle, a decision that I’m sure some photographers are very opinionated about. Yes, I do think that the ability to mount a tripod to the back or slung underneath is a better way to distribute weight, but it also adds more straps that, to me, aren’t worth the tradeoff. It’s all down to personal preference, and I’m satisfied with Shimoda’s choices here, especially considering the day-use concept.
But with that in mind, it’s not out of the question to assume that this bag will have to do more than be for daily trips into the city — people are going to travel with it. The Urban Explore is sized to fit in U.S. and international carry-on, it has a hidden Air Tags sleeve, a luggage pass-through handle, and a really nice top handle that automatically retracts to sit flush with the body when not actively being used. There is also a handle located at the base so it is easy to lift the bag even when it’s on the ground or in a trunk.
What I am really happy to see included on the Urban Explore is a feature basically everyone else ignores: shoulder strap adjustments. While every backpack gives you shoulder strap length adjustment from the bottom, basically no backpack in this segment does it at the shoulder level. While not as good as what Shimoda has put in its adventure bags, which let you adjust the placement of the strap, these at least let you fix the tension from two points, making the bag far easier to make comfortable across a range of different body sizes. This mixed with a nice chest strap means that the bag is really comfortable — more so than many bags with waist straps that don’t allow for this level of shoulder adjustment.
Shimoda Urban Explore: Internal Design
The Urban Explore has two main compartments: one with top zippered access that’s large enough to fit my Tech Pouch loaded with cables, cards, and chargers as well as the main body, which has access from either the back of the bag (via a zippered door) or through a zippered side. That main compartment features a padded camera cube which can be removed if you would prefer to use the backpack for something other than your camera gear. I like this, since it doesn’t mean I have to fully unpack my gear individually but can just remove the cube and re-insert it later.
Shimoda’s Urban Explore features two pockets that could feasibly be used for a laptop or tablet, but one is smaller than the other. That smaller one is located in the door of the backpack (rear access, which is great) and at least in my 25L version, that would be great for a small or medium tablet or even a compact computer. But as a 16-inch MacBook user, I am really happy to see a second pouch that has an access point from the top zippered compartment. The 25L and 30L can hold my big laptop and I really like how access to it doesn’t require me to open the main door and I can even get to it when the bag is on the floor, such as when it’s stowed under the seat in front of me on an airplane.
The internals of the camera cube don’t break any new ground and are the standard removable inserts that use Velcro. Not my favorite since it’s a hassle to get them arranged perfectly, but they are the standard.
The Urban Explore stays rigid thanks to an internal frame, another excellent feature Shimoda borrowed from its adventure bag series. This everyday carry backpack never flops over and can stand on its own because of this and it also more evenly distributes weight when worn. An internal frame is exceedingly rare in bags like this and I’m very happy to see it here.
Shimoda Urban Explore: In Use
The Urban Explore fits just enough gear for how I travel in 2023, whether that be out to a local trail, over to the Japanese gardens, or on a plane to California to see family and friends. The interior can hold my camera with an attached lens, my travel podcasting microphone, battery and charger, and feasibly another lens, if I feel like taking two. The top compartment holds my Tech Pouch with all my necessary cables, chargers, and memory cards and I can also stash my 16-inch laptop in it. Slide my water bottle into a side pocket and I’m ready to hit the road.
The way the Urban Explore feels is basically identical to wearing Shimoda’s other backpacks, which is a very good thing. I’ve done a one-day, 12-mile hike across the California coast with a fully-loaded Action X70 with few complaints and I think that the Urban Explore is equipped with a lot of the same parts that made that possible.
The Shimoda Urban Explore is a Fantastic Backpack
Comfortable and durable, I can find very few things to complain about in Shimoda’s Urban Explore. Sure, there are a ton of backpacks out there that compete in this “everyday carry” category and everyone will have their favorites, but I think I’ve found mine.
It integrates some key features that just aren’t found in other bags in this category and it isn’t asking much more for them. The Urban Explore 25 I have will retail for $320 when it hits store shelves in February, although Kickstarter backers can get it for $240 which is a sizable discount. Considering similar-sized alternatives like Gura Gear’s Kiboko City Commuter, which costs $300, and Peak Design’s Everyday Backpack, which costs $280, aren’t a heck of a lot cheaper and don’t have an internal frame, shoulder adjustments, or a removable camera cube, Shimoda’s asking price — even at without a Kickstarter discount — feels like quite the deal.
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