Flying with only carry-ons

It seems like most photographers go through numerous backpacks and other gear-packing solutions trying to find the optimal solution for lugging around gear. I’ve tried many different solutions and I always expect to have a number of options to choose from depending on what I’m carrying and where I’m going.

This post is about the options I’ve been exploring for packing all the gear I need for most trips in a bag that I can carry on a plane as a personal article according to Air Canada’s carry-on policy. Although there are airlines in Europe and Australia where they have even more stringent carry-on policies, Air Canada’s policy is a good benchmark for me since I’m in Canada and travel a lot with them and their allowances are typically less than most US airlines. This way I know if I can meet Air Canada requirements then I’m probably fine for any US travel.

I’m a super-disciplined packer and I never, ever check luggage unless I have absolutely no choice. Like many airlines, Air Canada let’s you carry on a large bag, which they refer to as a “Standard Article,” and a smaller bag, which they refer to as a “Personal Article.” The standard article can’t be bigger than 55 x 23 x 40 cm (21.5 x 9 x 15.5 inches) and the personal article can’t be bigger than 33 x 16 x 43 cm (13 x 6 x 17 inches). At times they will enforce this.

Previously I had been carrying all my camera gear in a backpack that would qualify as a standard article which meant I had to fit all my luggage, which includes my folded tripod as well as all my clothes and toiletries, in something that would qualify as a personal article. That’s not easy to do although I’ve done it for ten-day trips. I had been using a North Face Base Camp Duffel in the XS size, which slightly exceeds the personal article dimensions, and I really had to be very disciplined with packing and really had to jam everything in there to make it work.

I wanted to switch things around so that I would carry all my camera gear as my personal article so that I could carry a bigger bag as my standard article. This would allow me to pack for longer trips and give me the option of using a hardcase roller which has a bit more security and protection and has wheels for transporting the luggage for longer distances.

Traveling on regional jets

To make things more challenging, I want to be able to take my camera gear onboard the smaller regional jets that are often used by Air Canada or US airlines for short trips. When flying on the regional jets, they will make you gate-check your larger article but this is usually not a problem and there’s far less chance of the item being lost or damaged than when you check it in before security. However the bag containing your camera gear either needs to fit into the overhead compartment (which is smaller on these jets) or under the seat in front of you. For your bag to fit into the overhead compartments of regional jets the the cross-section of your bag (looking at the short end of the bag) must fit into about 25.4 x 40.64 cm (10 x 16 inches). Note also that with regional jets the underseat space is very limited and can also vary depending on which seat you’re in.

Good things to do when flying with only carry-on luggage

As a side note, if I’m traveling only with carry-on luggage (and this applies no matter what size aircraft I’ll be on) I find it helpful to keep the following in mind when I travel:

  • Aim to board onto the plane as soon as you can in case they run out of overhead space
  • If you can, try to travel premium economy, business or first class, or be some kind of frequent flyer, so that you can board sooner, potentially get access to more space in seats in front of you, and are less likely to be hassled if you’re slightly outside the carry-on restrictions
  • Avoid seats in front of bulkheads since there’s no seat in front of you to store things under
  • If you can get close (typically in business or first class) to the front of the plane, friendly flight attendants MAY let you store something in the area where the coats and jackets are stored or where they put their own carry-on luggage
  • Be aware that in some planes the space under the seats in front of you is narrower for aisle seats than for window seats so you may want to avoid these unless you don’t like window seats

Figuring it all out (theory and practice)

I love to spreadsheet the heck out of everything. I have a spreadsheet that has the dimensions, and calculated volumes, and weights, of every item, as well as the external and internal dimensions (and weights) of the various bags I own or am considering buying. One of the things I’ve learned is that while this approach can be helpful, there’s still no way to really know whether a bag will be able to carry your gear until you get it and try it out. In some cases I’ve sat in camera stores with all my gear trying to fit it into various packs or I’ve bought something and ended up having to return it. I’ve found there are two main reasons for this:

  1. It’s all about how the various pieces of gear fit together and around each other like a jigsaw puzzle and how fast you can access the things you need
  2. Many bags are built for larger DSLR bodies and lenses are are way too deep for compact mirrorless setups which means you’re wasting a ton of space in the pack

My gear

My essential gear list for a typical trip where I’ll be doing wildlife and landscape photography is as follows (I’ve bolded things for further reference when I get into describing what I can carry in each backpack I’ve tried):

  • Essential cameras and lenses: Sony A7RIII with 16-35 f2.8 and 24-105 f4 plus remote shutter control and Sony A6500 with 100-400 zoom and 1.4x and 2.0 teleconverters
  • Gimbal: Jobu Jr 3 Deluxe gimbal for shooting wildlife on a tripod at a fixed location for longer periods
  • Filters: LEE 100mm filter holder with 82mm wide-angle adapter ring and 77mm adapter ring, 105mm circular polarizer, and 10-stop, 6-stop, and 3-stop ND filters
  • iPad Pro 10.5 (with Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil)

I can fit all of this into a box shape of 25 x 42 x 14.5 cm (9.8 x 16.5 x 5.7 inches). I can also fit just the cameras and lenses into 25 x 32 x 14.5 cm (9.8 x 12.6 x 5.7 inches). Note that the setup I’m using is mirrorless and the bodies are quite compact. Something like a large, gripped DSLR setup will be way bigger.

Where possible I also like to take:

  • Bonus camera: Leica Q for urban shooting and general documentary
  • Extra filters: 3 or 4 graduated ND filters if they will be useful for landscapes
  • MacBook with i1 Display Pro monitor calibrator. I can get a lot done using the iPad with Lightroom CC for backing up and editing and Affinity Photo for further editing but the MacBook has a bigger display and allows me to run Photoshop if needed (can’t wait for full Photoshop on the iPad coming in 2019) and I really prefer to edit on a calibrated display when I can. If I take this I also have to take a small USB-C port hub that I can plug the i1 Display Pro into and that I can use to read SD cards.

Additionally I need at least space for the following essential extras:

  • Spare batteries and chargers and cables as required for all gear
  • Spare SD cards
  • Rain cover for the backpack and rain covers for cameras
  • Bug repellent (DEET-free of course) and a small tube of After Bite
  • Head-lamp and backup flashlight if there’s any chance I’ll be going anywhere dark (often the case if I’m shooting sunrise or sunset or doing any astrophotography)
  • Cloths for cleaning lenses

and possibly the following additional extras if I’m going somewhere remote:

  • GPS unit/satellite communicator if going into remote places
  • Small binoculars for spotting things at a distance
  • First Aid kit
  • Survival kit

I’ll carry my tripod, which is currently a 3 Legged Thing Billy, in my luggage bag and then transfer it to my backpack (or carry it in-hand which is sometimes useful for traversing the odd rough terrain) once I arrive at my destination.

General requirements for camera backpacks

Everyone has their own must-haves and nice-to-haves. Here are my must-haves:

  • Main access to the bag must be through the back. Access through the front is a security risk as people may be able to access your bag while you’re wearing it. Also, when you place your bag down to access your gear and the ground is wet, muddy, or worse, it may transfer to the back of the bag and that will then transfer to your back when you put the bag on.
  • Bag must be comfortable to wear for whatever distances I’ll be walking. This usually means it has to be full reasonably rigid enough to maintain shape when loaded and have a waist strap to transfer some of the load off your shoulders.
  • The backpack absolutely must have a rain cover in case it rains. When these are stored at the bottom of the backpack they also add a bit of extra padding for your case in case you set you pack down hard and the item at the bottom is a bit more fragile. Ideally the backpack itself is also pretty water resistant so that you don’t have to reach for the rain cover unless the rain gets heavier.
  • Enough protection so that all gear is protected at least from general handling with the assumption that if you drop your bag or fall on it you may break something inside
  • A way to carry a tripod
  • A way to carry water either in a bottle or hydration pack
  • Straps must be able to take a Peak Design Capture clip. I typically have one on each backpack strap. Some backpack straps are too wide to take these.

Nice-to-haves:

  • Something that doesn’t scream that it’s a backpack full of expensive camera gear
  • Multiple ways to access camera gear such as through the side of the backpack or from the top
  • Extra, expandable space in the backpack to store things like clothing you may need later or that you may shed when it’s warmer, food, first aid kit, rain jacket and pants, etc. Having the space be expandable is great because if you’re not using the space the backpack will be smaller which helps for getting it on as a carry-on.
  • Attachment points such as as MOLLE or similar so that you can carry extra gear strapped to the outside of the bag with straps or carabiners
  • Removable camera insert (sometimes called a “camera cube” even though they typically aren’t exactly cubic in dimensions) so that you can easily remove all the camera gear. There are two benefits of this. One is that if you end up in a situation where you are asked to check even your personal article bag on a flight, you can easily pull out all the camera gear and carry it in something small enough that it will fit under the seat in front of you. The other is that once you’re at your destination, there may be times you will want to go out with just one small camera and lens, or even no camera at all, and use the space in your pack for other things. By the way, whenever I do this I always make sure I can secure my camera gear either in a hotel safe or a Pacsafe portable safe (I always carry one or two in my luggage).
  • Something that looks equally at home in urban and backcountry environments

Backpacks I’ve been trying out

OK, so now that we’ve got all the preamble out of the way, here are some of the backpacks I’ve been trying out. I’ll keep updating this post as I try other options.

Tamron Nagano 16L backpack

You’ll find details, specs, and photos here. The Nagano is basically one big compartment with dividers. The compartment is only accessible through the back. There is also a pocket on the front that doesn’t open very wide.

Pros

  • This thing is tiny and I’m able to fit all my essential cameras and lenses, gimbal, filters and iPad plus essential extras. It maintains it’s shape really well. It’s really light yet well padded. You’d never know I have so much gear inside the thing.
  • Price can’t be beat
  • Not an obvious camera backpack

Cons

  • Can’t carry a damn thing more. The most I can do is put some small, light things like all my additional extras in a dry bag and attach it with a carabiner to the top handle.
  • No real option for carrying a tripod. You can stuff one of the legs into the elasticated side pocket intended for a water bottle and use the strap further up the side to secure it but the material for the pocket is not super tough.
  • The compartment for the iPad is at the front of the pack where it could be accessed by someone (although it would be very difficult for them to do it and get the tablet out without me noticing it). This adds more weight (not much) outside the pack. Also you can only fit an iPad in there. MacBook won’t fit.
  • Build quality is not awesome and I worry how long it would last. Part of this is that the bag material is quite textured and will wear faster than something with a smoother surface. It will also pick up dirt more easily.
  • Waist strap is about about as minimal as it could possibly be and is more for stabilizing the bottom of the bag than it is for transferring any load off your shoulders.

Wandrd Prvke 31

Check out all of the Wandrd offerings at their website. The Prvke (pronounced “provoke”) bags are relatively new but so far the reviews have been highly positive. The 31 is a 31-liter bag and they also make a smaller 21-liter but that would never work for me so I went with the 31 although it slightly exceeds personal article dimensions. See further below under the “Cons” section for more about that. The Prvke has a large compartment into which you can put a removable camera cube with access through the back or through the side, a smaller compartment above the camera cube, more space above that which is expandable through a roll-top, and numerous other zipped pockets.

Pros

  • Great build quality and choice of materials. Nice colours too. I got the Aegean Blue. Bag itself is quite water resistant but there’s also a rain cover included for storms.
  • Really comfortable to carry and the waist strap is both removable (attachment system is quiet ingenious and both fast to attach and remove yet secure) and well padded and one side has a zippable pocket and the other has an elasticated pocket with openings on both sides. You can stuff some things in there temporarily like small lens caps.
  • Every zip is beautifully weather-sealed.
  • There’s a huge full-length pocket on the front of the bag. You can put a fair bit in there.
  • There are three smaller pockets, including a secure one that is right against your back. I put SD cards in the secure pocket, batteries in the side pocket, and headlamp and other essentials I may need to access quickly in the small pocket at the top of the back of the bag.
  • Has multiple attachment points along on the main straps as well as removable attachment straps to carry things elsewhere outside the pack (there are 6 different attachment points on the pack).
  • You can carry a tripod either with the legs in the expandable side pocket (made of tough material) and secure it with the clip further up the side, or you can carry it horizontally at the bottom of the bag using the attachment straps or on the front of the bag using the attachment straps. The downside of carrying it under the bag is that it makes it hard to put your bag down with the bag standing upright. If you carry the tripod in the side pocket then there’s no way to carry a water bottle. Carrying it on the front on the outside centres the weight but also puts the weight further out from your back which is not good. What I do is carry the tripod in the side pocket and I carry water in an expandable soft bottle (like this one) that’s clipped to wherever on the bag I want it. I like having options to clip things in different places so you can put them at the easiest access point and you can also redistribute weight as needed. For example, clipping something onto the straps in front of you will counterbalance some of the weight in the pack behind you.
  • In addition to the main access through the back, there is side access and it’s big enough that I can pull out either of my main cameras through it (just). There is also access to the smaller compartment, that sits above the camera cube, through the roll-top.
  • Camera cube is removable.
  • With the camera cube in and the top of the cube permanent rolled back, the backpack itself still has another internal zippable flap that covers the main access to the camera cube.I typically leave this unzipped. At first I thought it would be annoying and would get in the way but it’s actually great. If you open the main back of the bag and spread the backpack open on the ground and want to leave it open while you shoot, you can pull gear out and then leave the internal flap lying over the top just to help avoid dirt, dust, or leaves, or even light rain from getting into the cube. You can even zip it up if you want if it’s windy and there’s blowing snow.
  • Expandable roll-top gives you a place to carry other stuff like a jacket and rain gear and although it’s not lockable, the roll-top would be next-to-impossible to access while you’re wearing the pack.
  • There is both a tablet and a laptop compartment and the laptop compartment looks like it could even fit a 15″ laptop in there. These are located on the back of the backpack so that the weight is closer to your back and it’s impossible to access while you’re wearing the bag. If you’re going through a TSA checkpoint you can open the bag clamshell style and they may let you run the bag through the scanner without actually removing your laptop or tablet.
  • Even though the main straps are too wide to take the Peak Design Capture clips, there are narrow straps attached to the main straps where the clips can be attached. Unfortunately the one on left side is elasticized but I put the clip near the top where strap attaches to the main strap and it seems fine.
  • I can fit absolutely everything including all my essential and optional gear into this bag and still have space for more with the expandable roll-top.
  • The Prvke comes in a nice large fabric bag for storing the backpack. I keep the backpack, full with all my gear, in this storage bag which keeps the dust off but more importantly helps keep my room (or cupboard) cleaner as the backpack straps aren’t just hanging out everywhere where they could get stepped on or someone could trip on them.

Cons

  • Even if you don’t have any extra stuff in it, the backpack slightly exceeds personal article dimensions but there’s two good things. One is that the backpack is not very deep and it should fit under most airline seats. The other is that the camera cube is removable if you really get forced to gate-check this bag. The backpack also doesn’t look big.
  • Not inexpensive but I do believe you are getting a quality product.
  • The camera cube, even for the 31-liter bag, is not huge. However I can fit my essential cameras an lenses in there. I can fit my gimbal, filters, and some other things in the compartment above the camera cube. Unfortunately this means I have to put my bonus camera, if I’m carrying it, in the roll-top compartment. Not ideal but I’m OK with it.

Right now I’m testing the Prvke a lot and loving it. As I mentioned, it slightly exceeds personal article dimensions and I haven’t tested flying with it yet but I suspect it won’t be a problem. It’s a bag that looks great, feels like it’s really well built, is comfortable to carry, and makes excellent use of space. It would never work for a wildlife shooter with a big DSLR kit but for my mirrorless setup it’s great.