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Packing Heavy Gear in Light Packs


The area around Moab, with its diverse and iconic scenes, attracts a lot of photographers. I had a chance to meet several travel photographers, peek at their equipment, and got a glimpse at how they packed.

How I pack for active travel is so important to my fate as a traveler. For as many years as I've been writing for this site, I have experimented with dozens of different ways to pack. While I have always sought that one combination of bags that solves every travel problem, I've learned its better to have flexibility with a small quiver of bags and backpacks. While I don't profess to be being able to tell you how to pack for the type of travel you do, I thought you my be interested in how I have learned to pack for a variety of situations.

I carry a large format 4x5 camera system whenever I travel. For most of the 12 years of Notes from the Road, I have used an ice climbing pack to carry my gear. These packs tend to have a very solid, water-resisent exterior, but are also very light. Without extra pockets, you can shape your gear into the shape of the backpack.

Black Diamond

This has been a vital difference in how I've been packing my backpack versus a lot of other travel photographers. There are a lot of travel photography-specific packs, such as this LowePro NatureTrekker, pictured below. The pack appeals to photographers because it is designed to protect important camera gear, which it does admirably.

However, a pack like this weighs about 14 pounds on its own, without any gear. That may not feel like a lot of weight on its own, but when you are packing 20-30 pounds of metal on your back, that extra 14 pounds is a dealbreaker.

Another problem with these photography packs is that they are so rigid in their structure, that they simply can't hold the gear of photographers whose gear falls out of the classic SLR structure of a long lens, a couple SLRs and a couple smaller lenses.

LowePro Nature Trekker

The idea for me has always been to find light, but resilient climbing packs with narrow profiles that can hold camera gear tightly against my back. If packed correctly, the way each piece fits together provides the support that keeps everything safe. This has always allowed me to carry much more gear than my travel photographer friends, because, the surprise is that the cumulative weight of gear protection, containers and padding adds up very quickly.

More recently, I realized I needed a different solution - these days, I usually need to carry a laptop, a telephoto digital system, as well as a telephoto macro system. The weight of all these items is nearly equal to the large format system.

Also, I am getting more and more trouble from airlines for carrying a large carry-on. This is especially true on small puddle-jumpers, which demand your carry-ons go in the hull of the plane. I have been lucky to convince the pilot each time to stash my photo pack in the Captain's closet, but that luck will run out eventually.

I found this Patagonia Atacama pack on sale for $45. Its much smaller than the ice-climbing packs I've used in the past, more like a large daypack. It fits the large format camera, the digital camera, and two lenses in the main compartment, along with the laptop and cord.

I am able to fit 20 sheets of film, the light meter and the film back in a separate pouch. Tripod fits snugly on the skateboard ties. Extra large format film, telephoto lens and macro system fit vertically in a travel satchel, which is small enough to fit under my seat in any airline.

If the airline attendents get fussy about sending gear down below, I can switch the most sensitive items to the travel satchel. The key with this setup is that there is still no photographer's padding, and so the weight stays down.

Travel System

I use another backpack as padding within the satchel. Its a very small one-strap sling backpack, also by Patagonia. You can stow your larger backpack and fit a telephoto lens, a pair of binoculars, a travel umbrella and a bottle of water in this tiny pack. Again, the way you pack the pieces together allows you to keep a padding-free gear pack. I use this setup when I want to shoot macros or telephotos, but need a lot of mobility.

Packing light with a Patagonia Sling Pack

While having a light pack is important, some packs just don't work well for this type of packing system. I am a big fan of GoLite, the lightpacking products for ultralight backpacking. But this type of ultralight backpack doesn't have a rigid back, which is necessary for that type of packing system. Without a rigid pack, heavy gear can't sit in one place:

GoLite Backpack

Always curious to learn more about how other people pack.

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