Photo Tips from the Field: Camera Packs & Roller Cases

Posted Jan. 3rd, 2020 by Daniel J. Cox

Years of Carrying Too Much Gear

The life of a traveling photographer is unique to say the least. I’ve been doing just that, full-time, since 1981. And though there’s nothing else in life I would rather do, like anything, it has its pros and cons. Schlepping lots of heavy gear falls squarely in the “not much fun” category. But… camera packs and roller cases have helped solve this necessary evil.

Photographing polar bears in Wapusk National Park from the comfort of a caribou hide. My Lowepro Super Trekker on the side could handle a 600mm F/4 and a large assortment of other camera gear.

My ah-ha moment came in the late ’80s on my way to Kenya. I was carrying a Lowepro Super Trekker with 60 pounds of camera gear. I know for sure since I weighed it. In a small duffel bag with 600 rolls of film that tipped the scales at 40 pounds. It’s hard to believe the airlines let me on with that much gear, but they did. Going through the airports I would put the Super Trekker on my back and then hoist the 40 pounds of film up onto the top of the pack.

Sleeping at the Gillam Airport in Manitoba, stranded due to weather.

One hand remained firmly attached to the duffel as I walked the long, arduous airport corridors. First Minneapolis, then Amsterdam, and finally Nairobi. In those days and even now, there’s no way I check camera gear going to Africa. Somewhere along a lengthy stretch in the Amsterdam airport, I decided there had to be a better way. Thankfully there is, and you can see the process I’ve figured out in the video below.

Daniel discusses the four different camera packs, rollers cases, and duffel bags he uses to get camera gear to the many destinations he travels to.

Roller Bags to the Rescue

I’m not sure exactly which roller bag I started with, but it was definitely similar in size and design to the Lowepro Pro Roller X200 I currently use. Back in the early days, I went with the camera dividers that came with the roller case. Today I rip them out and replace them with Internal Camera Units (ICU), a term F-stop Gear coined.

Internal Camera Units

Each bag company seems to have their own names—Camera Inserts, Core Units, ICU—for what I would describe as internal camera and lens dividers. They’re nothing more than a box with padded dividers and reasonable rigidity that can slip into a roller case or backpack.

My favorite of the inserts due to its sturdy dividers that are very thin yet protective.

For this blog post, I tested four different camera backpacks and inserts that going forward I’ll refer to as ICU. In the end, the one that fit my needs the best was the ICU from the Lowepro Whistler 450 AW. Unfortunately, I had to buy the entire Lowepro Whistler 450 AW to get the ICU. Lowepro and Mindshift don’t seem to sell the ICU separately. With these two options, you’ll have to buy the entire pack to get the ICU.

Lowepro and F-stop Gear ICU

For protecting my camera gear inside both the Lowepro Pro Roller X200 and a recent addition, the Highline RL X400 AW, I add either the F-stop Gear PRO ICU or the ICU that comes with the Whistler Backpack 450 AW. The F-stop Gear Large ICU doesn’t hold as much equipment as the Lowepro insert, but there’s extra room at one end of the Pro Roller or the Highline RL X400 for incidentals.

The Lowepro ICU has enough room for my Olympus EM-1X, Olympus 300mm F/4, Leica 50-200mm, Leica 8-18mm, Leica 12-60mm, and two additional Lumix G9’s. Downsizing my gear has given me the ability to always have my 600mm F/4 (Olympus equivalent 300mm F/4) with me.

Rolling in Style

There are several ways to roll your gear, but the two I’ve ended up relying on are both from Lowepro. Even so, there are other options to be considered from Thinktank, Shimoda, and bags from Samsonite and other traditional luggage vendors. My dear wife has a Samsonite roller case I’ve been threatening to commandeer 😀

Lowepro Pro Roller X200

Until recently, I’ve been using the Lowepro Pro Roller X200 for my main roller. Lowepro makes three different sizes of this bag. They have the Pro Roller X100, Pro Roller X200, and Pro Roller X300. As you can guess, the smaller the number, the smaller the case and vice versa.

A short video from Lowepro highlighting the Pro Roller series.

When I was shooting Nikon gear I could easily fit a 200-400mm, 70-200mm F/2.8, 24-70mm F/2.8, and two bodies in the Pro Roller X200. There was also room for numerous smaller items like batteries. In short, it carried everything I needed except my 600mm F/4. The 600mm was a lens I brought on a case by case basis and it didn’t always make the cut.

Lowepro Highline RL X400 AW

The Lowepro Highline RL X400 AW has pretty much the same room as the Pro Roller X200. But an advantage to the Highline RL X400 is its softer sides. With less rigidity in the external walls of this roller, I definitely would never check it. But that’s no longer a worry since my roller case, with gear, is now small enough to seldom draw the attention of the carry-on police.

Into the Field

For getting off the beaten track, I’ve settled on two different camera packs that do a great job. The goal is to get your gear to the shooting location that’s not easy to roll a case to.

F-stop Gear Ajna

I go over more details in the video, but the pack I find most useful is the F-stop Gear Ajna, mainly due to its adequate size and less bulk. Really it’s mostly about the lack of bulk and the ease of squashing it into a duffel bag.

Hiking the tidal flats in Katmai National Park, with the F-stop Ajan on my back

The Shimoda Explore 40L is also easy to pack into a duffel, but it’s not large enough to carry the Lowepro Whistler ICU I prefer.

My overall second choice would be the Lowepro Whistler Backpack 450 AW. It’s a great pack but considerably more bulky and difficult to get in a duffel bag. I recently saw on Lowepro’s website that they’re showing a version 2 of this pack that they say is 15% lighter. Maybe they knew I was writing this? Here’s a link to the Lowepro Whistler Backpack 450 AWll.

Mindshift Gear

Out of the four packs I tested, there’s no doubt the Mindshift BackLight Elite 45L is the go-to bag for the serious hardcore shooters. This pack is the current day equivalent of the Lowepro Super Trekker! It holds a ton of equipment, more than I want to carry, and it was the bulkiest of the group when it came to stuffing it into a duffel bag. But if you need to take the kitchen sink, then this bag is for you. Keep in mind all the other vendors have something as large, I just happened to pick this one for this review.

MindShift BackLight Elite 45L product demo

Duffel Bags

As we all know, there’s a huge variety of duffel bags out there. I’ve gone through a wide selection over the years, and I’ve come to stick with one brand, Eddie Bauer.

camera packs roller cases
Dan and Tanya with too many bags at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, about to head to Costa Rica.

My preference for Eddie Bauer duffels is the Expedition Drop Bottom Rolling Duffels, extra large for cold weather destinations and large for warm-weather trips. I like these duffels due to their reasonable price and a hard-sided bottom. The hard-sided base is a great place for tripods. It’s also a nice feature for separating dirty boots, rain gear, etc. from the main compartment.

Unfortunately, they’re not as durable as some from Patagonia and North Face but durable enough to get at least five years of use. They’ll eventually develop small holes but if that bothers you, just take it back and they’ll give you a new one. Eddie Bauer guarantees these duffels for life. Personally, I just put up with the light abrasions and small holes. Travel is tough on bags, and I don’t feel right pushing for a new bag with normal wear and tear from the airlines.

Save Your Back for Things That Count

As we all get older the body changes. Anyone reading this knows what I’m talking about. Just this morning I had my first of several appointments for back issues I’ve been dealing with since I was 27 years old. I’m convinced that 35 years of carrying heavy camera gear is at least partially responsible for an aching back. It’s also possible my high school football and hockey career didn’t help. Ya think?

Whether you played hockey or not, if you’ve carried a backpack full of camera gear on your back you know it’s no fun. My system has been a godsend for arriving at my destinations in a much more positive state. Let me know in the comments below if any of you have ideas or experiences on this same subject.

Editorial Note

I recently became aware that the Lowepro Whistler Backpack 450 has been updated to a version ll. I’ve listed that below the original that was discussed in the video.

List of most items discussed

Lowepro Whistler Backpack 450
Lowepro Whistler Backpack 450 ll
Highline RL X400 AW
Mindshift BackLight Elite 45L
Shimoda Explore 40L
F-stop Gear PRO ICU
Eddie Bauer

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There is 1 comment on this post…
  1. Portrait of Fred Kurtz

    Fred KurtzOn Jan. 5th, 2020

    Very good informative video Dan. Figuring out the best way to transport camera gear from home to the trip destination and then repacking the needed gear from the hotel to the shooting site has always been a challenge. You have come up with a unique system. I showed the video to Kathy and she said “We don’t need more bags!” Lol. Us boys love all of our bags. Your 2020 photography season starts in a couple weeks. Wishing you and Tanya a successful 2020 and beyond.

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