How to Choose A Birding Bag

Last Updated on January 19, 2024 by Nancie

My Coolpix p900 & Mountainsmith Drift Lumbar Pack
My Coolpix p900 & Mountainsmith Drift Lumbar Pack

When you go out birding, you often have quite a bit of gear to bring with you. Finding the perfect birding bag to hold it all can take a little time and research. While Jim and I each have special padded camera bags and backpacks that we use to transport our cameras, binoculars and other related gear on longer vacation trips, for a single day out birding, we use day bags.

Vortex Binocular Harness & Monarch 5 8x42 Binoculars
Vortex Binocular Harness & Monarch 5 8×42 Binoculars

Things to Consider When Choosing a Birding Bag

When choosing a bag to hold your gear, you need to think about everything you might want to carry. I doubt there is any one bag that will fit the needs of every birder. What you bring along might be different than what I do and might require more or less space.

What Will Go In Your Birding Bag?

For example, your bag might need to hold:

  • binoculars
  • camera and/or extra lens
  • extra camera cards and batteries
  • cleaning supplies
  • bird ID books or your smartphone
  • a trail map
  • wallet/ID
  • a comb or other personal items
  • a little first aid kit
  • tissues
  • hand or foot warmers
  • sunscreen
  • mosquito repellent
  • a snack or lunch
  • a water bottle
  • a super light rain jacket
  • a tripod
  • a birding scope

How Will You Carry Everything Else?

How will you be carrying your birding bag and how will that work with other things you need to bring? (Remember that you will probably also have binoculars and/or a camera hanging on you.)

When Jim and I are actually walking around birding, we typically are wearing our binoculars on a harness and have our cameras on Blackrapid camera straps (usually a shoulder cross-body strap for Jim and a wrist strap for me.) Jim is sometimes also carrying a scope on a tripod. When we reach our destination, we typically get out of the car and start layering on all these items.

Coolpix p900 on a Blackrapid Wrist Strap
Coolpix p900 on a Blackrapid Wrist Strap

Having a lot of straps can make things complicated. Sometimes you need to layer them on in a specific order to keep everything accessible.

For example, I most often wear both my binoculars harness and my day bag on my body and hold my camera on a wrist strap. Using a wrist strap instead of a shoulder strap for the camera eliminates some strap tangles.

I like the straps to my binoculars harness on top so I have free range to lift the binoculars up off my chest, unencumbered by my bag’s cross-body shoulder strap.

We Like Lumbar Bags

A lumbar bag works for me because it sits low on my back. I can detach it to swing it around front if I need to get something out of it but it is out of my way behind me most of the time. (Note: Jim and I have both found that regular backpacks are usually too unwieldy and harder to get into while birding so we prefer lumbar packs.)

Our binoculars and camera are not usually IN the bag while we are birding. But our bags typically do hold these items in the car on our way to and from the birding destination. They also serve as a quick dry place to stash our cameras if it unexpectedly rains.

Our day bags are walking around bags and are not specially padded to protect cameras or other gear from falls and bangs. So when they do hold these items, we keep that in mind.

My Coolpix p900 & Mountainsmith Drift Lumbar Pack (bag used for birding)
My Coolpix p900 & Mountainsmith Drift Lumbar Pack

Mountainsmith Drift Lumbar Pack

I use this Mountainsmith Drift Lumbar Pack almost every time I go birding. I’ve had it about three years. It is small but it still holds what I need it to hold and doesn’t get in my way. (2024 Update: I have updated Amazon link to the newest version of this pack. I bought my bag in 2016. It has held up great and I’m still using it six years later!)

Its central compartment is big enough to hold my Coolpix p900 camera or my Monarch 7 10×42 binoculars (both, if I really had to do it and if I put them in very carefully.) Or it can hold a lightweight jacket and a snack or small lunch.

Interior pockets let me slide in odds and ends of camera supplies. Pouches outside at either end hold a lens cleaning kit and a small or medium sized water bottle. The big front pocket holds all the other odds and ends.

This bag has a waist belt and a cross-body shoulder strap. While birding I usually use both. If we get something to eat or run an errand after birding, I tuck the waist belt inside its pocket sleeve in the back and use just the shoulder strap, turning it into a shoulder bag.

You can alternatively remove the shoulder strap and just use the waist belt. Personally, I find that when I’ve loaded up the bag with heavy items, I like to also use the shoulder strap, as well as tightening the compression straps on the bag itself, to keep it more upright and snug to my body. Otherwise it would tend to lean out at the top of the bag. It would really depend on what you have in the bag though.

Mountainsmith Drift Lumbar Pack on Amazon

Pacsafe Metrosafe 3 Liter Anti Theft Shoulder Bag (back used for birding)
Pacsafe Metrosafe 3 Liter Anti Theft Shoulder Bag

Pacsafe Metrosafe 3 Liter Anti Theft Shoulder Bag

I use this Pacsafe Metrosafe Shoulder bag as a binoculars case. While it is not designed for this use, it fits my binoculars nicely, is slightly padded and is less clunky than the squared off case that came with my binoculars. My Coolpix p900 can alternatively fit into it in a real pinch.

I have had this bag for two years. I sometimes use it to transport my binoculars to a birding location and then leave the bag in the car while I carry my Mountainsmith bag and wear my binoculars on a harness. Other times I use it solo, wearing it cross-body on my back when I want to travel lighter. Only rarely do I carry both this bag and the Mountainsmith bag out in the field at the same time because that would add bulk and another strap and isn’t usually necessary. (Note: This bag’s original purpose is as a cross-body security bag for use when traveling and/or you are worried about having your purse snatched. I like using it as an easy to get into purse in airports as well as for binoculars.)

This bag has slim interior pockets inside the main compartment as well as a big front pocket with interior pockets of its own to hold various small odds and ends. So if I’m traveling light, I can carry small things like tissues, toe warmers, my wallet, an extra camera battery, a comb, my smartphone, etc.

Pacsafe Metrosafe 3 Liter Anti Theft Shoulder Bag on Amazon

Canon EOS 7D Camera/400 mm Lens & Mountainsmith Tour Lumbar Pack (bag used for birding)
Canon EOS 7D Camera/400 mm Lens & Mountainsmith Tour Lumbar Pack

Mountainsmith Tour Lumbar Pack

This Mountainsmith Tour Lumbar Pack is the bag Jim uses for birding. He has been using it for two years. It is quite a bit larger than my lumbar pack, although the design is very similar and works the same way with the waist belt and a cross-body shoulder strap. While my bag has a single carry handle at the top, this one has a pair. It does also have some additional features that let you attach things onto the outside of the bag if needed. (Jim sometimes uses this to attach a jacket.)

The central compartment can hold his Canon EOS 7D camera with the 400 mm lens unattached and a second smaller lens, or his Nikon Monarch 5 8×42 binoculars and a jacket and lunch (and sometimes my lunch too for that matter!) If the long lens is attached to the camera, the end of the lens would stick out the side by a few inches.

Like my pack, there are interior pockets inside the main compartment, pouches on either end that can hold things like water bottles and a big front pocket. And like mine, it is worn at the lower back so it stays out of the way.

2024 Update: Jim bought this bag in 2017 and five years later is still using it for every birding day trip. I bought one for myself a few years ago for trips where I’m instead using my Nikon with a long lens. They hold up great and have worked well for us over the years.

Mountainsmith Tour Lumbar Pack on Amazon

Making Your Choice of Bag

Jim and I have been using these bags for a couple years now and have found them to be very solidly made; they are holding up very well and suit us. You might like one of them for your own use.

A birding bag, like a purse, briefcase or backpack is largely a personal choice though. The bag you choose will depend on what you want to carry and how much space you need, how you want it to hang on your body and your own personal taste.

These bags might be a good starting point for your search. The companies that make them also make other bags that you might alternatively consider. Some come in different colors as well. Happy birding!


More Handy Tools For Birding

Looking For a Handy Smartphone Birding App? See My Four Favorite Birding Apps. Also see Apps to ID Birds in Mexico.

Looking For a Gift For Your Favorite Birder? Check out my post on Gifts Ideas For Bird Watchers and Birders.

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2 thoughts on “How to Choose A Birding Bag

  1. RE: Choosing a birding bag

    This is the MOST helpful and realistic article that I have read about choosing a birding bag. It helped me make a decision and a purchase. I had not previously considered a lumbar pack but I found after reading this article that a lumbar bag would probably be the best choice for me. I have found backpacks to be cumbersome — having to always be taken off to access needed items and sometimes straining my shoulders. I wanted something smaller and more compact. I decided to purchase the Mountainsmith Drift Lumbar Pack and it is perfect for me. Large enough for my binoculars and for my other essentials too but still a manageable size for a petite woman. The shoulder strap is optional but handy — I prefer to use it. The pack is easy to swing around to the front to acccess or wear that way depending on the situation. Besides for birding, I am also planning to use the Drift Lumbar Pack as my carry-on purse for air travel and ditching the backpack. FYI the Amazon link in this article takes you to an unavailable model of the Mountainsmith Drift. There is a newer model that appears to be overall the same. I found this item currently on sale on several sites including REI and Amazon. Again this was the best and most helpful article on choosing a birding bag. I think it saved me a lot of time searching and searching online. Thanks B&B.

    1. Hi CP,
      I’m so glad the article was helpful. We still love these bags and use them every birding trip. They’ve held up well over the years. Thanks for letting me know about the link. I’ve updated it.
      Good wishes,

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