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Papa Wants a Brand New Bag [Carrying Capacity]

January 10, 2011

If you are a serious birder and serious amateur photographer that travels, I have a question for you: how do you pack for flying?

For years I’ve traveled light. Everything I brought fit into one internal-frame backpack that I checked, plus whatever I carried on the plane. My “carry on” was probably what a “personal item” is these days: a small backpack that fit under the seat, eventually morphing into a laptop in the mid-’90. I never bothered to compete for an overhead bin.

But now I’ve accumulated a set of equipment that I like — nay, need – to bring whenever I go anywhere. Binoculars, scope and tripod, DSLR camera and accessories, laptop and more. Depending on the destination, a field guide or two, and most definitely a notebook for field notes. I’m not sure how to pack this stuff safely anymore . . . in fact, it just occurred to me my problem is starting to sound like this George Carlin riff.

Anyway, a camera bag loaded with gear and the bins comes on the plane with me, as does the laptop case. Tripod goes in the checked backpack — long ago I took a knife to it so two separate compartments became one tripod-length area – but certainly not the scope. Now I’ve got my arms full with delicate things I wouldn’t trust to the most gentle grandmaster of packing, which may be pushing the tolerance of a ticket agent, depending on their mood. To this end I offer prayers that their spouse hasn’t left them recently, their morning coffee wasn’t cold nor their toast burnt. On occasion I carry things for my traveling companions, which often happens with a six-year-old. I guess I was naive, originally thinking she would become my sherpa. And things may become more complicated if (when?) I expand my photography rig.



This is what traveling with me is starting to look like.

So, for those of you who have similar cargo, how do you pack it? We’re in the market for a new set of luggage-type stuff, so what should we be looking for? Brand-names are welcome! Plus, your thoughts, ideas, and experiences are appreciated, as are any stories that come with checking/carrying birding and/or photography gear.

To share one story: I’m used to finding a “TSA Searched Your Stuff” tag in my backpack anytime I carry a tripod, but I’m continually surprised no TSA agent ever wants to examine the scope more closely. The Germans held me for almost twenty minutes until they were satisfied, or at least persuaded, I wouldn’t knock the pilot over the head with it. I guess I finally convinced them Vogelbeobachtung was more important to me than taking over an airplane, and the mere thought of swinging a thousand-plus dollar optic for any reason was a sure sign of mental illness.

Luggage photo via sun dazed at flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).


5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 11, 2011 00:07

    My system:
    Suitcase has clothes, tripod (with the center column removed, wrap the whole thing in a jacket if possible), ipod speakers, and most of the books (generally stuffed inside my field bag). Wear the boots, pack the sneakers. Used a duffel bag the last couple times, which didn’t really work well. I had no clue about size so I bought a giant one and it ended up flopping all over. Tripod did help stabilize it a bit, but it was still a pain (and the big strap was broken by a baggage handler).

    Main compartment of the backpack gets the scope (eyepiece removed) and camera lens. Pile the camera body, binoculars, and netbook on top/beside (often remove at least one of those except for when in the security line). Front pocket gets the scope eyepiece, chargers and cables, gps, ipod, etc. Often end up not having room for any books, which makes for boring flights (load up the netbook with trip reports/birding trail site guides). I’ve considered taking my field bag as a personal item and stuffing as much into that as I can but haven’t needed to yet. Keep the backpack under the seat.

    And my experience with searches is pretty much the same. I get the your bag was searched card probably 75% of the time but it’s been 25% or less that I’ve had them ask to open the backpack (and I think the last time was just a random pick for swabbing and had nothing to do with the contents).

    • January 11, 2011 11:58

      @Jason – thanks for the details of your packing strategy! Sounds somewhat similar to what I’ve developed over the years. I’m never happy with the “which shoes to wear and which to pack” dilemma, hiking boots are such a pain to take on/off at the airport, but are bulky and heavy enough I choose not to pack them (thanks, shoe-bomber).

      What backpack are you taking on the plane that fits all of the sensitive gear? I’ve seen a model of a camera bag that has cut-out spaces for lenses and body at the bottom of the pack, a vertical, padded area for a laptop that runs along your back, and space above the camera gear for miscellaneous items — like you, I wind up with loads of cables and chargers, iPod, gps. I’m wondering if something like that is worth the $$ they seem to cost, or does the space max out too quickly.

      Also, glad to hear about your experience with the duffle. In the past I was frustrated with our large suitcase which, with the addition of a tripod, was pushing the 50 pound limit. Books, boots, etc pushed it over the top, so I’m looking for a lighter option than that, but something still sturdy. A duffle bag seemed to be a good possibility, but . . . .

      Thanks for commenting about your system!

      • January 18, 2011 00:18

        Just got around to checking for brands/models. Backpack’s just the EMS one I had used for school years ago, don’t see it or a similar one offhand on their site. Big section, smaller section that has various pockets/pen holders/etc, then a small front thing and a drink holder. Don’t think I could get a full-sized laptop in, but the netbook fits fine (and is usable enough for checking email and backing up photos, which is all I need on the road).
        Shoulder bag is also EMS and again I don’t see it on the site. Has a section that’s big enough for 2-3 field guides that can be covered, plus two flatter sections on the sides (one for the notebook, one for a snack or something). Drink holder and a cell phone pocket (which I use for a digital voice recorder) and a zippered section that I never use as well.
        Realized I didn’t point out that the duffel bag I used was a nylon shell with no support at all, one with any form of a sturdy base would probably be fine.

  2. Peggy Gussman permalink
    January 11, 2011 15:45

    Hi, Mike –
    My husband and I have a 2-person system…not sure it can be done with only one. He takes “Airport Security” a rolling backpack by Thinktank ( – they have various sizes) filled with 3 camera bodies, 24-70 F2.8, 70-200 F2.8, 300 F4, 500 F4 w/hood lenses, ball head & side kick for tripod (that goes in the suitcase) also strobe, spare batteries and other acc. – it really holds alot! These bags are not cheap, but with the amount of money invested in this equipment, they are worth it. This size fits in the overhead, not under the seat. He takes a smaller backpack for the laptop and other stuff as his “personal item”. I take a carry-on for the scope, bins (2), cam-corder and field guides. I also have a small backpack for a laptop and other stuff in lieu of a purse.
    We pretty much max out the allowable luggage. Depending where we are going, we even use a “cooler” w/wheels as one of our checked bags – good for boots, smaller tripods, all kinds of stuff – and then can be used for drinks and lunches when we are on the road! We do alot in Yellowstone, but even took the cooler to South Africa this last August. They just want to know what’s in it and really we have very few problems with security. They seem to be more tolerant of camera gear than they are of liquids over 3oz. – I’m always having to throw away my water bottles!
    Within the US they seem to go on size for the carry-ons, so whatever you can stuff into the bag can go. Within S. Africa, we had trouble because they wanted to weigh the carry-ons and all that stuff is way too heavy for what they wanted us to take! We went through the line seperately and I kept taking stuff out (handing it to my husband on the other side of the rope) until we got them to the right weights. They put on the “OK” tags, and then we packed everything back in after we got out of line! We have found it necessary to get to the airport early as we never know how much we will have to re-pack!
    If you want to take as much stuff as we do, you’re definately going to have to hire your wife!
    Have a look at the website, you’ll surely find something. I really enjoy your blog..hope this helps and happy birding!

    • January 11, 2011 17:37

      Hi Peggy,

      Thank you for your detailed comment, and especially your experiences traveling abroad! I will certainly be checking out the website you mention. Maybe my first step is to recognize I’m not a broke student with no possessions traveling on a shoe-string budget anymore, I might as well embrace traveling properly. I’m getting the idea two carry-on bags will likely be a necessity, it appears you and your husband have gotten this down to a science. I love the idea of a cooler-with-wheels to check and re-purpose when in the field.

      One issue we may continue to face will come from flying in-and-out of our small, regional airport. Size is often limited, occasionally we have to gate-check bags that are too large for those planes, but are perfectly fine for the larger planes flying from Philadelphia or Detroit.

      But these are great leads to re-think my packing strategy — thank you!

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