Manfrotto Off road: Gear For The Great Outdoors
Manfrotto, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of tripods, tripod heads, monopods, lighting equipment, and camera bags, has partnered with Fizan, a prominent Italian company that’s been making ski, trekking, and outdoor gear since 1947, to create the Manfrotto Off road line. It’s a new collection of lightweight products aimed at hikers, wildlife observers, and other outdoor enthusiasts who want to shoot pictures on the trail. It includes an ultra-light tripod, a pair of ingenious walking sticks (one of which can be used as a monopod), and a commodious lightweight backpack that can carry a comprehensive photo outfit, as well as spare clothing, food, and accessories, or can be configured as a traditional hiking pack. To give you an idea of how well these items perform in the field, we put them through their paces by taking a five-mile hike in the woods, packing a consumer DSLR with an 18-55mm and a 75-300mm zoom to capture the glories of early spring.
Manfrotto Off road Aluminum Walking Sticks may well be the most innovative of the three items in the Off road line. Both feature calibrated 3-section twist-lock poles that fold to a portable 23.4" in length, and can be clipped together with a furnished flexible plastic clip to form a unit that’s only about 2" wide, weighs a mere 12.8 oz combined, and attaches easily to the Off road backpack via the adjustable tripod cords on its back. Each stick is topped with a rubberized ergonomic handgrip and a robust heavy fabric wrist strap with a soft, pliable rubberized inner surface and each has a spiked base that terminates in a concave end that provides a good grip on a variety of ground surfaces and is less likely to wear than a pointy tip. The sticks also come with slip-on rubber feet for use on surfaces like hardwood floors, and sand/snow baskets that slide over the bottom of each leg to prevent the sticks from sinking into any snow, sand, or soft ground encountered on your trek.
While a single walking stick can be useful on a hike, there is no substitute for having a pair of walking sticks when you’re trekking up and down hills traversing uncertain or slippery terrain. Since I was hiking in fairly cold weather in the hilly areas of upper New York State, I did encounter some snow. Once I reached my shooting destination, a mountain vista, I extended the stick with the built-in camera-mounting platform to its near-eye-level maximum height of 52.1", flipped open the rubberized cover, screwed the standard 1/4"-20 screw into my camera, and was able to shoot sharp pictures at ISO 100 at relatively slow shutter speeds, such as 1/30- and 1/60-second—even at the 200mm and 300mm settings of my telephoto zoom.
Granted, no monopod will provide the stability of a good tripod, but then, there aren't any tripods I know of that weigh less than 7 oz and also double as a walking stick. The monopod stick is very easy to mount your camera on, even without a quick-release plate, and it provides a commendably stable and sturdy shooting platform even at its maximum extension—there are metric calibrations on both poles, and STOP marks on each extension to warn you not to overextend them. Minor niggle: When you mount the rubber feet, you should remove the sand/snow baskets first so they’ll slip on securely and won’t fall off. Overall, Manfrotto Off road Aluminum Walking Sticks are a very useful and attractive accessory for adventurers dealing with challenging terrain and also dedicated to shooting sharp pictures on the trail. They are available in red, blue, and green.
The Manfrotto Off road Aluminum Tripod With Ball Head is also designed for easy carrying when attached to a backpack, and it certainly qualifies as an ultra-light, ultra-compact unit that weighs only 1.4 lb, has a folded length of 24" and a minimum diameter of a mere 2" when collapsed. Like the Walking Sticks, it features 3-section twist-lock legs, but they terminate in a unique multi-faceted high-grip pattern that provides stability on a variety of outdoor surfaces and is less likely to wear than a conventional pointed tip. It also comes with rubber feet that slide over the metal tips and sand/snow baskets that slide over the bottoms of the legs to keep it stable on loose surfaces.
While the Off road Tripod has a reasonably high load capacity of 5.5 pounds, sufficient to accommodate a consumer DSLR with a moderately-sized telephoto zoom, it does not have a center column, which limits its maximum height to 40" and minimum height to 21.5". Also, unlike other Manfrotto tripods, there is only one leg-angle stop at about 30°, and no center hook for hanging a stabilizing weight, such as a camera bag. These are not crucial omissions, given its intended use, and the lack of a center column enhances its stability. The rotatable ball head is surprisingly robust for its compact size, has a built-in bubble level to facilitate camera alignment, a large milled thumb screw that makes it easy to mount your camera, and a notch in its housing, making it convenient to rotate the camera from a horizontal to vertical shooting position. If the legs are positioned properly it will hold your camera in any position the ball head allows—impressive. However, as you approach its weight limit you may find that the camera jiggles slightly when you tap it. If this happens, I found that lowering the legs a bit, or placing your hand lightly atop the camera as you fire solves the problem.
Overall, I found the Manfrotto Off road Tripod to be stable, satisfying, and easy to use on the trail, and it was a big help in achieving sharp pictures, especially in low light. Clearly, it’s been optimized to provide ultra-light weight and a slim, portable profile that meets the needs of hikers and backpackers. Its simple, no-frills design may lack a few features found on larger, heavier tripods, but this is intentional. It is available in red, blue, or green.
The Manfrotto Off road Hiker Backpack provides the classic configuration for adventure-style backpacks, featuring a top compartment for non-photographic items such as jackets, food, and incidental gear, and a roomy reinforced bottom compartment for carrying and protecting your camera gear. This setup places the heavier stuff on the bottom for a lower center of gravity and better balance on extended treks, and there’s a sturdy mesh layer on the back that provides an air gap that keeps your back cool on the trail. Below this is a large padded section that protects the small of your back from jarring loads, and a number of cross straps with sturdy click-in fittings, including chest and waist supports, which make the pack comfortable to carry even over long distances.
The bottom compartment has a conveniently placed side zipper for easy access to your photo gear without removing the pack, and it contains an insert that divides the space into two well-padded compartments with room on top for extra equipment. This pack will accommodate a DSLR with a mounted 70-200mm lens plus one additional lens, so there was plenty of room left over when I stowed my DSLR outfit. The insert is attached by hook-and-loop strips and is easily removable to convert the pack into a standard camping pack. The large shoulder and waist straps, internal flexible polycarbonate frame, and light 4.9-lb weight of this pack make it a good choice for photo trekkers, and its 30-liter capacity is impressive. The upper compartment has a top flap for weather protection that’s secured by two sturdy, adjustable straps with click-in closures, and you can cram a remarkable amount of stuff into it, though you should favor lighter items to maintain the pack’s excellent balance.
For the record, the bottom compartment measures 6.7 x 10.6 x 4.9", and the top compartment is even bigger, measuring a commodious 10.2 x 11.4 x 6.7". The Manfrotto Off road Hiker Backpack is constructed of water-repellent nylon, has a large mesh side pocket for stowing the insert, if desired, provides a handy waistband pocket for your smart phone, and has a sturdy top carrying handle. This is a well-designed, well-made pack that has clearly been optimized for hikers and trekkers aiming to take pictures in the woods and along the trail, and it’s one of the most comfortable backpacks I’ve ever used when traversing long distances—highly recommended. It is available in red, blue, or green.