The eternal dilemma of carrying and using photo equipment when backpacking

As some of you may already know, I am leaving soon for my next big trip of 4-6 months in India, Nepal and Myanmar for my new non-profit organization, Shoot to Help. We will be documenting the work and impacts of NGOs and we will then share our report and provide them with the images for their promotion. In this post, I will talk about some of the difficulties of this trip in terms of packing and choosing the right equipment and, as I have not decided and prepared everything yet, I will also directly ask for your help and ideas!


Like most long trips involving photography, I always face the same dilemma concerning packing; how to have a big backpack for everything that can hold the camera and equipment but also have a smaller daypack for going around with the equipment and some small stuff. I have been looking and I have yet to find the perfect solution. The thing is that I am traveling backpack style in rough environment with significant camera equipment (2 bodies, 3 lenses including a 70-200 2.8, one tripod, flash, computer, etc) and I will mostly be in two “modes”; travel mode or photography mode. Another complication also comes from the fact that I will be in two different climates; warmer temperatures of South India, later on spring in the North and Myanmar in opposition to the cold winter of Northern India (including Ladakh) and Nepal. This means that I need normal and light clothing as well as warm layers for harsher climate and hiking boots for trekking in the Himalayas. Do not forget the photography equipment by the way!

Young me not pleased with a messenger bag in front. What was I thinking with hair like that....

When traveling between places, NGO projects and hiking long distances, I will need to have everything with me, equipment, clothing and all. When I will be shooting, I want to be as light as possible meaning only photo gear, tripod and little things like Lonely Planet, food, layers of clothing, etc. Basically, this means that I must have a way to carry the gear on a daily basis as well as on a longer term. Having a daypack is usually the way to go but too large a bag and it gets extremely uncomfortable to carry in front while wearing a bigger backpack. I’ve tried it in city environment and it’s far from perfect, I won’t risk it in the harsher environment that is Himalaya. It is also out of question to be shooting a whole day with all of my stuff, impossible. The ideal most perfect so awesome very nice solution for me would be a large expedition backpack that could integrate seamlessly a small photo daypack. Another solution would  be a large pack and using a dedicated padding removable photo compartment, something like the  F-Stop Gear ICUs . For that, I would need a small daypack that could folds itself, taking not much space inside but that could expend to include the photo compartment.

That's what the large backpack looks like when it's on. Oh and also, not the same hair anymore, you see??

F-Stop Gear has some amazing bags and their largest one, the Satori  is almost, almost the perfect solution. I have never tried it but it seems easy to integrate and even use the equipment by using their ICUs but the bag in itself is too small for what I want. It is more designed as a photo expedition backpack rather than a long term travel pack holding everything necessary for everyday life. A larger Satori integrating a small daypack that could hold the ICU would be the perfect option, hear me well F-Stop!

As this perfect backpack combo does not exist yet (or I am not aware, by all means cast a light on my ignorance if you dare) I have opted to use a large expedition pack of 70L which have an separated section at the bottom of the bag that can be opened independently. The particular model I’ve chosen is the Serratus 70 from Mountain Equipment Coop which got some cool stuff as well. The two small bags on the sides can be removed and I use this space for Brian the tripod from 3 legged thing, still not sure about what I’ll do exactly with the other bag but I am considering using it as a lens holder for the 70-200mm 2.8.  Other nice things include weather resistant construction, removable top part, separate compartment for camel back and pretty robust suspension in general.

The main big backpack. The Kata Bumblebee-UL-222 which I own and love would be too big to carry along. The Lowepro Pro Messenger 200 AW (which I also own and love) does not fit well as a front carrying bag and is far from ideal for hiking.

To get a better idea of what I need in terms of space and functionality, I must tell exactly what I a bringing.  I separate my stuff in two different areas; photo and electronic related and…the rest.

The photo part means;

  •           Canon EOS 6D
  •           Canon EOS 7D
  •           Canon 16-35mm f4L IS (not on the picture, will buy soon)
  •           Canon 24-70mm f2.8L
  •           Canon 70-200mm f2.8L IS II
  •           Canon 600EX-RT flash
  •           2x 32GB, 1x16 GB SD cards + 2x 16GB CF card
  •           2x Silicon Power A80 Rugged 1TB external hard drives
  •           1x Verbatim 16gb flash drive
  •           1x Transcend multi-card reader  USB 3.0
  •           6x LPE-6 batteries
  •           4x Ansmann AA batteries
  •           1 Ansmann Vario Charger (to buy)
  •           2 European adapter, 1 multicountry adapter (on its way)
  •           1x Solar charger with battery; a Power traveller Powermonkey extreme, I know it’s a long name 
  •           BW Neutral Density filter
  •           1x Giottos dust blower
  •           1x Shoot to Help lens cloth (available on our Indiegogo campaign!!!!! )
  •           Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and power cable (about that, you can read my review here)
  •           Microsoft Arch Mouse
  •           Samsung Galaxy S4
  •           Klipsch headphones
Silicon Power A80 1TB external hard drives. Those things are larger than a WD My Passport but they are military grade. Those things can resist water, drops, fire...crazy stuff. Click on the image for the review of my friend Ben Von Wong

Silicon Power A80 1TB external hard drives. Those things are larger than a WD My Passport but they are military grade. Those things can resist water, drops, fire...crazy stuff. Click on the image for the review of my friend Ben Von Wong

That’s what I need to bring but I won’t carry the whole thing when shooting, I’ll pretty much only need one body, sometimes two, the three lenses, sometimes the flash, sometimes the tripod, a couple of room for Lonely Planet Book + food and one of the hard drives. Seems weird to be shooting with a hard drive but I always carry one on myself when traveling. One is the main drive, the second is the backup and I try, as much as possible to have them in separate bags and locations, reducing the risks of getting both stolen.

When traveling, the photo gear will be inthe bottom compartment of the bag, this is just an exemple.

For the “rest of the stuff”, I won’t describe for now every single piece of clothing I will bring even though I have carefully chosen, compared and weighted each and every piece but I’ll give a general idea. Some sub layers in merino, mid layer from Arc’teryx and external waterproof and windproof layer constitutes the biggest and largest things besides the sleeping bag. Winter clothes, even though they are quite good quality and thus lightweight do take more volume and weight than summer clothing. The other things taking space are the solar charger with its battery, the Lonely Planet books and the medicine kit. Most are essential but the Solar Charger with the epic name (the monkey thing) could potentially be a little too much but as I will probably be in remote areas with constant electricity failures. I will also do some hikes of many days to 1 week long in cold environment. As one of my greatest fears while traveling is not having any power when seeing THE  moment in THE light well, I thought I could add some weight (and expenses) for a little peace of mind.

I am set considering the large backpack and pretty much what to take and how to organise it inside. Now, the part where I need your help; how to pack and most importantly carry the photo gear as a standalone.   I am considering three main options and I would like to hear your thoughts:

The first option:

Modular insert

-          The gear is in the bottom compartment in a padded photo insert similar to this 

-          I carry a small average daypack in the large one, it would be small and easy to stuff somewhere

I would have to remove the insert and stuff it inside for daytrips.

Pros:

  •           Protected gear in the insert
  •           Does not take too much space
  •           Inexpensive
  •           Room in the small daypack for book, food, 1 piece of clothing

Cons:

  •           Impractical to change lenses quickly
  •           Hard to carry Brian the tripod around (no tripod pouch on the small daypack)

The second option:

847226.jpg
  •           Gear is individually packed in holster and lens pouches such as those from think tank
  •           I put the pouches and holsters directly in the large backpack or even hang some to it and just take what I need on myself

Pros:

  •           Gear is protected in the bag
  •           Flexible solution
  •           Easy access and change of lenses

Cons:

  •           Not much space for other stuff (book, food, etc)
  •           Still no space for Brian the tripod
  •           More expensive

The third option

Small photo backpack for daily use

  •           Carrying a small dedicated photo bag with a removable compartment
  •           The bag would be able to flatten itself to be carried in the large pack or attached to it while the photo compartment could be safe inside the big one
  •           It would serve as a daypack for gear and other stuff

Something very similar or exactly like the Lower Pro Flipside sport 10l

Pros:

  •           Gear is protected in the bag
  •           Flexible solution
  •           Easy access and change of lenses
  •           Tripod attachment
  •           Possibility of using the bag for other things as well when removing the photo compartment
  •           Affordable

Cons:

  •           It takes more space in the large backpack
  •           No space for other stuff when carrying photo gear

 

I know it’s a long post but it’s a complicated problem for me that has been recurring for pretty much all my traveling life. Now it is even more crucial that I solve it because I will be on the road for a very long time, in hard conditions and it won’t be just for fun and games; the whole mission of our organization, Shoot to Help will depend of not only carrying and using the gear but also keeping us in good conditions. Carrying too much stuff with cheap and hurtful bags is a bad long term solution. Through Shoot to Help, we are trying to present good news, positive events to the rest of the world by showing the good side of NGOs and international collaboration; the actual and concrete impacts on the people. We want to show the solutions but also support those projects by providing them with the visual documentation they need to explain and promote their activities. We provide our services free of charge but ask for support (food, accommodation, transport, etc) in return to reduce our expenses. If you like our way of thinking, you can have a look at our Facebook page or website to get more details and information;

 

As I said, our first mission will cover projects in India and Nepal and we are leaving on December 31st. To fully finance everything, we have recently launched an Indiegogo campaign, do not hesitate to have a look;

I thank you all in advance for your suggestions and wisdom in trying to help me solve my gear carrying dilemma!