A Packing Strategy for Air Travel with Cameras

Written by Ernesto Santos on .

As much as I love going out to shoot at some far-away location I am always at odds whether to drive or fly commercial airlines.

Whenever I have a choice, I always choose to drive. I can pack what I want and as long as it fits in my Jeep it’s coming along with me. Obviously, when the location is so far away that driving is not an option or driving will cut too much into the available free time for the trip, the only choice left is to ride the not-so-friendly skies of your favorite airline. That’s when my blood pressure starts to rise.

Aside from the modern-day realities of air safety requirements, flying to the destination always means one thing - compromise. You must compromise on what you can take with you to meet the ever tightening restrictions regarding checked baggage sizes and weight, and the limits of what you can carry with you into those tight spaces inside the plane. This seems to be an even harder requirement to fill since I’ve always felt my camera packs to be miserably inadequate for the task. But recently, I formulated a plan that I tested a few weeks ago on a week-long trip to South Dakota that I think has finally given me a viable solution.

For my recent trip I selected four bags to pack eight days of clothing, two DSLR camera bodies, five lenses ranging from 14 mm to 200 mm focal lengths and a 1.7x teleconverter, a few filters consisting of polarizers, ND Grads, and ND’s, a tripod and two ball heads (I always carry a spare), a laptop and portable hard drive, and various battery chargers, lens cleaners, tools, etc. In the past when I traveled with this general outfit I struggled with carrying all my delicate camera equipment and my laptop in a typical backpack design like my Lowepro Vertex 200 AW. A great bag, which I use most of the time when I travel by car, but a little too bulky to be shuffling through busy airports and in the cabins of your typical 737 sized plane. Plus, at my age I try to limit wearing a heavy backpack as much as possible. Over the last couple of years suffering the back pain and soreness resulting from carrying a photo backpack, I vowed (after every punishing flight) that I would find a better solution.

So, here is what I’ve devised, that has so far, proven to be a great solution. I first purchased a bag to carry all of my camera equipment on the plane. It had to be well constructed, it had to meet both US domestic and international carry-on requirements, and it had to be well designed so that I could fit at a minimum the list of cameras and lenses I described earlier. Finally, and most importantly, I wanted a bag with sturdy rollers and with either shoulder straps that could be tucked away and out of sight or with no shoulder straps at all. The bag that I chose to meet these requirements is the THINK TANK PHOTO Airport International V2.0 Rolling Camera Bag.


Think Tank Photo Airport International
Think Tank Photo Airport International V2.0

This is a very well built and designed bag that can miraculously hold a lot of gear for its size. It has great security features like TSA approved locks and a lock and cable system, in case you ever needed to secure the bag to an immovable object, and according to their website description will meet both US and international carry-on restrictions. There is one thing you must be aware of with this bag, though. If you use L-brackets on your camera bodies you will find that this bag will not accommodate a body with an L-bracket attached. So you must remove them, and either store them separately somewhere in the bag, or put them in your checked luggage – which I don’t recommend since your checked bags don’t always end up in the same place you landed in. I can handle wearing the same clothing for a couple of days but I can’t do without my L-brackets when shooting. And don’t forget to bring along the appropriate sized Allen wrench to attach the bracket when you get to your destination.


Airport International Interior
Airport International Interior


So, that takes care of carrying your cameras and lenses on the long flight, tucked safely above you in the overhead bin. But, and you may be asking by now, a roller bag is not exactly the best way to carry gear out in the field especially if you plan on a few hikes. Yes, absolutely, but I have a solution for that. Let me first get through the rest of my packing strategies.

Next up is how to carry your laptop safely throughout the trip and still have it handy while enduring those long flights with crying babies all around you. Enter the THINK TANK PHOTO Artificial Intelligence 15 V3.0 Laptop Bag. I truly love this bag. I used to use the traditional bulky laptop bag that was more like a briefcase best suited for business travel. You don’t need that much bag if you are a traveling photographer, in my humble opinion. Chuck the “Lawyers in Love” look and go slim and sleek, you will thank me. This is a very simple case and there really isn’t much to it; less is definitely more in this instance. It is a slip case at its most bare, but the inclusion of a thoughtfully placed zippered item organizer, a full length pocket on the opposite side, and a well-padded shoulder strap makes this laptop case the bomb. I like to sling the strap over my opposite shoulder, over my head. This frees both hands, one to pull my roller bag and the other to hold my tickets. As an option it can fit inside the outer pocket of my Airport International for even more freedom. Honestly, if you really need more in a laptop case, I’m wondering if you aren’t spending enough time behind the camera and conducting too much business while on your trip.


Think Tank Photo Artificial Intelligence Laptop Case
Think Tank Photo Artificial Intelligence Laptop Case


Now, before I get to the secret weapon in my plan let me talk a little bit about what I use as a single checked bag. I have several types of rolling duffels that are generally large enough for a 7-10 day trip. I want it as light, but as strong, as possible because you must keep the bag and its contents at less than 50 pounds, and it must endure the abuse of the baggage handlers. There are many brands and designs out there and I won’t get into my preferences, since choosing the right bag for you is a personal thing. Let me just say you want a bag that is large enough to fit your collapsed tripod, your ball heads, all your battery chargers and other digital paraphernalia and still have room for clothing, toiletries, and maybe an extra pair of shoes.


Travel Duffel


And yes, I fully understand the ladies may have different requirements, so if you are a woman (or man for that matter) and need more baggage space, consider a second smaller duffel that you don’t mind checking at the ticket counter. Just bear in mind this will cost you extra with most airlines. Now back to the bag. In my experience construction and the materials used is everything. Get a good solid bag and make sure it can stand upright on the rollers on its own when not being pulled around the airport. Nothing is more frustrating than a bag that won’t stand up on its own while you’re desperately trying to find your boarding pass. If you are planning on traveling to a wet location water resistant materials is also a good idea.

Let’s do a quick review of what we’ve discussed so far. We started with what I call the primary camera bag. This piece will be traveling with you inside the plane in an overhead bin. All of your cameras, lenses, filters, and necessary equipment critical to your shoot should be in this bag. It should be well constructed and meet carry-on requirements. Personally, I like the stuff from Think Tank Photo for this item. Secondly, find a light, slim, laptop case. Leave the business/laptop case at home. Think sleek and sexy here. Again the Artificial Intelligence by Think Tank is my choice. Finally, choose a good travel duffel bag as your one checked bag. It has to be big enough to hold your tripod fully collapsed and all the other stuff you can’t reasonably carry with you on the plane. And of course, it should be big enough to hold all your clothes and personal items while not exceeding a total weight of 50 pounds.

This brings me to the heart of my solution that has me so satisfied I felt I had to write about it. I had always wondered if there was a photo pack that could be compressed into a small package somehow so I could stow it in my checked bag and still provide enough padding and rigidity to perform adequately on the trail once at the shooting destination. A new company by the name of GURA GEAR has recently introduced a pack that uses a modular system of storage and it’s called the Uinta. This is the bag I’ve waited on for years. While it can be made into a slim package and fit in my duffel it can also do so much more.


Gure Gear Uinta Modular System
Gure Gear Uinta Modular System


The Uinta is quite a departure from traditional photo packs. While the overall look and function is the same, it is in the way it is constructed that made me look at this bag closely. It starts with a lightweight outer shell which makes up the bags capacity and is no different in size and shape than a traditional pack. The difference though, is in the inside, or better put, what YOU DECIDE you want to put inside. The Uinta uses removable modules to hold all your camera gear. These modules are well padded and contain the usual Velcro secured dividers that make up the bag’s interior structure when installed inside its cavity. There are two module sizes a “medium” (which fits in the upper half of the bag) and a “small” which fits in the bottom of the bag. The shell allows you to install either one module alone (using the rest of the space for a jacket, or food, or anything else you need to carry with you), or both, or none at all.


Uinta Modules
Uinta Modules and Possible Configurations


Regardless of the configuration you come up with the bag remains a functional back pack, now that’s versatility. The bag and the modules are very well built and designed and GURA GEAR has videos on their site to familiarize you with how to arrange and use this bag to get the most out of it. I especially like the shoulder harness which is very comfortable and distributes the weight of the contents well. You can also get an optional Tripod & Hydration System that consists of a sheath to carry a tripod or a water bladder. In short, you can expect the same trail performance from this bag than any of the standard rigid packs on the market.

So, here is how I utilize my Uinta to get all the stuff I need in my duffel and still fit the pack along with all the other items. The first thing I do is to compress the Uinta outer shell. I may decide to store a few of my folded pants inside; it really depends on how much I need to fit in my duffel. I then set my tripod into the duffel and the extra pair of shoes and maybe my battery chargers. Now I take the Uinta modules and I fill them with rolled up socks, underwear, t-shirts, a windbreaker; whatever I can stuff in there. If I have to break down the padded dividers I’ll do so to create as much space as I need. You will be surprised how much clothing will fit in the medium and small modules combined. Now, if you have a large enough duffel the modules should easily fit inside with room to spare for the rest of your items. When I tried this for the first time I felt like I had finally solved this nagging conundrum at last. The day finally arrived for my departure and when I loaded my duffel on the scale at the airport ticket counter it came out to 49.5 pounds. Score! As the trip unfolded it was easy to unload the Uinta and its modules upon arriving and simply store the contents that were inside in the traditional way in my duffel for the duration of the trip. I then reconstructed the Uinta with the modules installed. When out in the field I kept all my camera gear in the Think Tank bag in the back of the SUV and off-loaded only what I needed for the shooting situation at hand on to the Uinta. By the second day I would simply keep what I was using in this pack as my primary kit and adding or subtracting items as the trip wore on to keep things as light as possible. It was truly a joy to work this way and my back survived without a single day of soreness.

Gura Gear and Think Tank Photo are two innovative companies that are designing forward-thinking bags for the active photographer. While I still use the traditional photo back pack designs I think those days are quickly coming to a close. I’m now looking at the Gura Gear Bataflae as a replacement to my traditional pack. The quality, design, and innovation is hard to deny and if I can alleviate the hassles of traveling with large amounts camera gear I'm ready to invest in these fine bags.