Action X v2 (Shimoda) and Boreal (PolarPro) are rugged camera backpacks designed for carrying and protecting camera gear in the great outdoors. Each bag shares several design similarities, including dual tripod pouches, rip resistant nylon exteriors, customizable padded interiors, and expandable roll-top compartments, but there are also some noteworthy differences that set them apart.
In this review, I'll compare and contrast the 50 liter Action X against the 50 liter Boreal, and share what I see as their relative strengths and weaknesses to help you make a more informed purchasing decision. For more detailed information about each bag, check out my separate reviews here and here.
At the time of this review, Boreal is only available in a single, 50 liter size. Action X is available in four sizes: 30, 40, 50 and 70 liters. The 50 liter Action X (named "X50") is roughly the same size and carries the same amount of gear as the 50 liter Boreal, but their maximum capacities are slightly different. When their expandable roll-top compartments are closed, Action X is 50 liters and Boreal is 35. When opened, Action X is 57 liters and Boreal is 50.
Concerning airline travel and carry-on bag size restrictions, both bags are just within the maximum dimensions of most international airlines. If necessary, both bags may be made smaller and less cumbersome by removing their waist belts.
Beauty is a subjective thing, but I think Boreal is one of the most aesthetically beautiful backpacks on the market. The bag looks like a collaboration between two designers: one from the world of high-end, expensive leather goods and apparel, and the other from the granola crunching Pacific Northwest. Boreal has a distinct visual edge and attitude that looks premium and contemporary.
In comparison, Action X is bulkier, less streamlined, and lacks the contemporary polish of Boreal. Not a bad thing per se, but Action X very much looks like a camping/outdoor backpack. Boreal is less technical looking, and would look more appropriate in an urban landscape when worn to professional gigs.
Material and construction
Both bags use thick, rugged nylon on their exteriors to help prevent tears and rips in harsh climates. Action X uses 420D gauge nylon, while Boreal uses a thicker, weightier 600D. Despite its heavier material, Boreal actually weighs less overall (5.8 pounds compared to 6 pounds with Action X).
All nylon surfaces on both bags are treated with DWR, a water-repellent coating commonly used in rain jackets, pants, and other outdoor apparel. This helps keep moisture from penetrating their exterior shells, but doesn't waterproof their interiors. For the latter you would attach a custom fitted rain cover. Action X comes with one, but Boreal unfortunately does not (it must be purchased separately).
Both bags use high-quality, rugged zippers with nylon pull-cords that make opening and closing compartments fast and easy. Most zippers are large enough to grab from a distance and quickly unzip when either bag is laying on the ground.
Overall, both bags use quality materials throughout their construction and are built to last.
One of my favorite features in both bags is their expandable roll-top compartments. This extra space is perfect for storing jackets, gloves, hats, food, or other items that don't easily fit inside (where the velcro dividers are). As mentioned earlier, Boreal's roll-top is twice as large as Action X (15 liters versus 7 liters).
Material wise, both roll-tops use the same heavy gauge nylon used with the bag itself, so they're just as durable and weather resistant. Both bag interiors can also be accessed through a zippered opening at the bottom of the roll-top when packing large and/or long items.
The main (relatively minor) difference between the two is their clasp design. Action X uses a single clasp that awkwardly clips in the middle, while Boreal uses two clasps, one at either end, that clip to the side of the bag. This makes Boreal easier to tighten down when expanded, and I think it looks nicer as well.
Fit and comfort
Shoulder straps are one of the key differences between Boreal and Action X. Boreal uses the typical, one-size-fits-all shoulder straps stitched directly into the back of the bag. Action X's shoulder straps may be raised and lowered to accommodate photographers with taller or shorter torsos, and may also be swapped out entirely with alternate straps for women, provided free of charge when ordered directly through the Shimoda's website.
I'm six-foot-four, so Action X fits me more comfortably. By adjusting its shoulder straps higher, the bag then sits lower on my back, which perfectly places the padded waist belt over my hip bones (where the belt should be). To lower and position Boreal in a similar manner, I have to lengthen the nylon straps at the bottom of each strap, which causes the straps to ride higher on my chest. This also causes Boreal's sternum strap to sit higher than I'd like.
Boreal isn't uncomfortable by any means, but if I were hiking for extended periods of time, I'd choose Action X.
Storing and organizing camera gear
Boreal and Action X store and protect camera gear using padded, velcro dividers that may be moved and repositioned to create custom layouts for camera bodies and lenses of all shapes and sizes. Boreal comes out-of-the-box with a padded divider system, but Action X does not. Action X is intentionally sold empty so photographers may choose however much or little storage they need using modular "core units". Shimoda sells an Action X "Starter Kit" that includes a medium-sized DSLR core unit, while additional units are available for purchase separately.
Neither system is inherently superior to the other. Boreal's divider system is simpler and more cost-effective, while Action X's modular design offers enhanced flexibility and control. But the latter is really only useful when gear layouts change, or when using the bag without camera equipment. If the same gear is consistently packed and carried each time, Shimoda's modular design may be overkill for some users.
The padded dividers in both bags help protect and organize gear, but differ in terms of materials and construction. Boreal's dividers are thicker, taller, and denser, while Action X's dividers are comparatively thinner and shorter. Boreal's dividers appear to be better, but in practical use suffer from thin, insufficient velcro tabs that detach too easily when camera gear is added and removed. In contrast, Action X's tabs stay exactly where they're placed.
Perhaps in the future PolarPro could revisit the design of their dividers and provide larger velcro strips/tabs for better performance and usability.
Both bags provide padded, front-facing laptop sleeves that can accommodate laptops up to 16". These front sleeves are nice, for they provide quicker, easier laptop access when traveling. If you'd prefer storing a laptop inside the bag, Action X includes a second laptop sleeve inside its back panel door (Boreal does not have a second, inner laptop sleeve).
External storage for extra gear
Because Boreal and Action X are both designed for outdoor, landscape, wildlife and adventure photography, each bag has its own solution for mounting and carrying additional gear on their exterior.
Boreal includes a clever, super durable lattice that clips onto the bag's front panel. It takes a little work getting it clipped-in and secured, but once there provides an excellent place to hang extra gear. Action X provides two lateral nylon straps (sewn into the bag) that are divided in the middle to hang a tripod, hiking poles, skis, or other items.
Action X also includes an additional helmet mounting accessory that attaches to the front of the bag using four nylon straps. This comes for free with the bag.
Hydration bladders are a great solution for storing and carrying large amounts of water when doing extensive hiking. I much prefer using a bladder (I use this one from HydraPak) instead of water bottles, for the latter always seem to run out too soon. Action X provides the requisite pass-throughs for drinking tubes, but Boreal unfortunately does not.
Overall, neither bag is perfect. Each has its own set of quirks, and will appeal to different audiences. Of the two, I believe Action X is the more mature bag, for it is sold in more sizes, uses superior interior dividers, and does a better job of fitting different genders and body types.
Boreal has some positive qualities, including a larger, roomier roll-top compartment, more durable exterior nylon shell, plus a beautiful, contemporary design. I also appreciate the simplicity of its interior, with padded dividers already in the bag, ready to go. For a v1 product, PolarPro created a beautiful bag that will likely get better once its kinks are ironed out.